The German National Socialist political party tried to destroy all traces of modern art during their reign of terror through Europe focusing on the Jewish population.
Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler rejected Cubism, Surrealism, Dada and other artistic movements. Anything the Nazi’s didn’t approve of was eliminated or put in a “degenerate” art exhibit for display.
Remaining pieces were displayed for public humiliation or stolen and kept by Hitler and high-ranking officials for personal collections. It was a sign of a Nazi’s elite status.
According to the documentary “The Rape of Europa,” curators and volunteers at The Louvre Museum in Paris packed up the museum’s collection when they heard the Nazi’s were coming. Relocated pieces included the timeless “Winged Victory,” which is about 2,200 years old, and the iconic “Mona Lisa.”
The Hermitage Museum in Russia wasn’t able to pack quick enough and was looted from the inside out, according to the documentary.
Many art pieces weren’t seen again until recently.
The Huffington Post reported that 1,500 paintings were recently discovered, worth over $1 billion, including pieces by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
“… A couple hundred of the paintings have been identified as belonging to museum collections. That is the easy part because the records are accessible and the works — mostly paintings — can be returned to their rightful owners fairly quickly,” said Jeffrey
Ruda, Professor of Art History at University of California, Davis, in an email interview.
The paintings were found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich, Germany; in the spring of 2011, but the German government kept it secret. The discovery was an accident when authorities showed up at Gurlitt’s home to investigate him for tax evasion.
Cornelius is the son of Hildebrandt Gurlitt. Hildebrandt was a Jewish art historian who was forced into collaborating with the Nazis, according to the Huffington Post article.
After the war, he was interrogated by the American forces about the collection, but he claimed it was destroyed. He was let go since he was seen as a victim of his Jewish heritage.
Cornelius used Switzerland-based bank accounts to hide the money he got from the selling paintings. Even after the raid on his apartment, in 2011, he still managed to sell a painting by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann for around $1 million.
The return of some paintings pose issues of identification as to who owned them.
“However, a much greater number of the artworks probably came from private collections. It will be very hard to track down who owns these artworks, and even to identify what some of them are, because many private ownership documents and other records were destroyed during and since World War II, and practically all the original owners have died,” said Ruda. “Sorting out all that material is likely to take years. I’m sure that heirs will be found for some of it, but valid owners may never be found for many items. My best guess is that those works may be sold for charity.”