On 3rd February, treatment Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, spoke out strongly regarding the lucrative trade in looted art and how Switzerland (amongst others) benefited from the thievery of men like Hildebrand Gurlitt, Kajetan Mühlmann and Karl Haberstock who headed the roster of art “dealers” for Hitler. He equated Gurlitt, and men like him, to Himmler. Why? Each art theft, as Lauder points out, led to at least one death and murder. Each theft changed family histories and national histories too, forever. For those who continue to reap the rewards of their loot today, a wall of silence – as strong as any Iron Curtain – has descended upon the surviving heirs who are demanding justice. Most beneficiaries simply want the current owners do the right thing. Many have devoted their lives to finding out the truth of what happened to their parents, grandparents or other relatives – and to recover something that the family treasured as a remembrance of another past. Like all of us, as they grow old, they are compelled to “remember”. But what is the value of those memories?
The value of any treasured remembrance is in the eye of the beholder. For museums, private collectors and governments, it must be something of great value to the art trade – otherwise, like the German government – it couldn’t possibly be of interest to anyone. This is one of the reasons why the Gurlitt collection has now been “downgraded” with only five works of art deemed to have come from Jewish families as wrongly reported in the world press. What the German government and Task Force has said is that it could only prove categorically the looting of five of the artworks and that the work will continue with the German Lost Art Database. The German Task Force didn’t bother with the less “valuable” artworks (drawings, prints etc). No separate comment has been made for over 250 artworks in Austria. For critics of my book (seemingly art buffs), get your facts right: don’t blame me for not giving more information about the art in the Gurlitt hoard – blame the German government.
As Lauder rightly points out, prints, watercolours and other “lesser” artworks by modern masters were often sold as job lots. However, art of great value in France was also sold in job lots to Gurlitt – 5 Gobelins tapestries, 3 Lautrecs, etc. I have seen the proof of this in the French National Archives from Gurlitt’s own “purchases”. I was the first to document that Gurlitt was the single greatest looter of France after Hermann Göring. So, in the case of Gurlitt, despite all the pretence by the German Government/Task Force and the Bern Kunstmuseum, justice has not been done. For the rightful heirs, the value rests in some justice being restored so family memories may be patched back together with a feeling of accomplishment.
The Swiss hair-splitting practice between Raubgut (Nazi looted art and valuables) and Fluchtgut (art and valuables sold for 5% or less of their worth in order to obtain an exit visa to save their lives) was highlighted by Lauder for what it is: a reason to continue to profit from the atrocities perpetrated against innocent civilians of the Second World War. It has allowed the world – not just Europe – to actively, consciously adapt truths into a new blameless belief system that somehow the looting of an individual’s home was “just an unfortunate act of war”. It was no such thing. It was a calculated first step in the dehumanisation of an entire population, first in Germany, then throughout the Occupied Territories. Coupled with stunning propaganda, it decimated the Jewish people and Hitler’s adversaries alike. It added substantially to the coffers of governments, banks, museums and private collectors.
But back to Gurlitt. One victim stands out for me above all others: art dealer extraordinaire Alfred Flechtheim – the man who taught German soldiers in World War I, including Hildebrand Gurlitt, how to save art. He was the first administrative Monuments Man. It was to his model that future Monuments Men worked. His phenomenal collection was doomed to be spread on the four winds from the time of the German elections of November 1932. So, where has that amazing collection gone? Hildebrand Gurlitt had The Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann – purportedly acquired in 1934, sold in 2011. More evidence of “trade” with Flechtheim exists in the Gurlitt documents held by the German government which have not been made available to his heirs. Shame on you.
Yes, Ron Lauder’s speech was incredibly impressive. Buying “in good faith” does not make for innocence in restitution. Nonetheless, there are many guilty American museums: notably one in Portland, Oregan which has a Picasso sculpture once owned by Flechtheim. Others in New York City, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago also hold secrets from the Flechtheim collection. When challenged by Flechtheim’s heirs, their Wall of Silence descends. Shame on all of you.