Nazi looting of European art is old news, but this expert, disheartening account reveals that Germany still possesses a great deal and refuses to give it up.
Lane, the former chief European art reporter for the Wall Street Journal, writes that in 2012, German tax authorities raided the apartment of elderly bachelor Cornelius Gurlitt and found more than 1,200 precious artworks piled in every corner. They kept the news secret until a magazine revealed it in 2013 and then proceeded to stonewall the authorities, insisting that this was a tax matter and that the government had no obligation in other areas. Since then, aggressive claimants have received a few works, but most are housed at a Swiss museum following Gurlitt’s bequest. Having delivered this news, Lane turns back the clock to recount the dismal yet captivating story, centered on Hitler, who, she reminds readers, grew up as an artist and remained obsessed by cultural matters throughout World War II. Another ongoing figure is satirical artist George Grosz, who immigrated before Hitler took power and saw his work reviled, confiscated, and never returned. Hitler’s taste in art received enthusiastic cooperation from dealers including Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. Readers will gnash their teeth as Lane engagingly recounts how dealers who formerly represented avant-garde artists quickly adapted and dumped their “degenerate” modernist clientele, except for purchases at knock-down prices for their private collection. They happily accepted works that they knew were confiscated from Jews. After 1939, many dealers, led by Hildebrand, toured conquered countries collecting for Hitler’s mythical future Führermuseum. When necessary, Hildebrand purchased works with an apparently unlimited national budget, although many ended up in his own collection, and most of them he successfully concealed after the war. Aware of art looting, the victorious Allies devoted modest effort to an investigation, but violent crimes took priority. Hildebrand and colleagues were cleared and resumed their careers.
A gripping, original contribution to a still-unresolved Nazi crime.