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How the recovery of modern art ‘defamed’ by Nazis will change the art world

November 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Researchers are hopeful the recovery of 1,400 Nazi-looted modernist masterpieces will help the art world learn more about the work and careers of artists like Picasso and Matisse. For more on how and why the valuable collection was amassed, Judy Woodruff talks to Claremont McKenna College professor Jonathan Petropoulos.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To take a deeper look at some of these questions about the art and the history, we turn to Jonathan Petropoulos, professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and a specialist in Nazi art looting and restitution.  He’s the author of several books, including “The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany.”

I spoke with him earlier this evening. 

Jonathan Petropoulos, welcome. 

First of all, where were these paintings, these works of art originally?  And how did they get into the hands of this elderly man in Munich, Mr. Gurlitt? 

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS, Claremont McKenna College:  Well, it’s a very exciting discovery of 1,400 paintings that were found by the German authorities in Munich, in the Schwabing neighborhood of Munich, which is near the university.

And we’re still studying the origins of the paintings.  But there seem to be two major groupings.  About 300 of them came from German state museums that were purged by the Nazis in the late 1930s, declared degenerate, and then given to — to dealers to sell off, and the remaining 1,100 appear to be largely stolen from European Jews and other victims of the Nazis. 

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And they were in the hands of this gentleman, Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, a very well-known art dealer named Hildebrand Gurlitt. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And how did he get them?

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS:  Well, Hildebrand Gurlitt is an interesting story in himself.

He was Jewish.  He had a Jewish grandmother, but he was able to continue working as an art dealer after 1933 in Nazi Germany.  And, in 1938, he was one of the four dealers hired by Joseph Goebbels’ Reich Propaganda Ministry to sell off, or, in Nazi parlance, to liquidate the works purged from German state collections. 

And so Gurlitt had access to these purged, these works that were removed from German museums, and, evidently, he held on to some 300 of them.  But later on during the war, Gurlitt became an art agent, an art dealer for Adolf Hitler and helped Hitler construct the collection for the so-called fuhrer museum, the museum that Hitler planned for his adopted hometown in Linz, Austria. 

And Gurlitt had special privileges.  He could travel to the German-occupied countries in France and the Netherlands.  He had access to foreign currency.  And, so, evidently, it was during the war when he was buying art for Hitler and the other Nazi leaders Hildebrand Gurlitt was able to acquire these works and keep them for himself. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And what was it that the Nazis found so objectionable about these paintings, these works of art? 

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS:  Well, Adolf Hitler resolved the debate personally about expressionism in modern art.

And Adolf Hitler thought that modern art was, A., either created by people who were physically inferior, who couldn’t see colors as they were and shapes as they were, and this was a sign of racial inferiority.  Or, B., they were political subversives, that this was international art, and this was art that was sold by Jewish art dealers.  And for either racial reasons or political reasons, Hitler defamed this modern art, and ordered that it be removed from German state collections.

And partly because Hitler and most of the other Nazi leaders didn’t value it, it gave a certain opportunity to Gurlitt and others like him to commandeer works for themselves. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  But it sounds like and you a lot of other people believe these are really important pieces. 

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS:  This is a truly extraordinary find, the most important since the end of World War II, when the Allies discovered huge caches of art in salt mines and castles and other repositories.

And there’s never been anything like this, certainly not in the hands of one individual, a private individual.  And these 1,400 works, most of them are classical modernism, the Matisse and Picasso, the German expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.  But not only are they tremendously valuable — by one estimate, as we heard, $1.3 billion — but they’re going to cause us to reassess the work and the careers of these important artists. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Now, who will these paintings belong to?  What will happen to them? 

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS:  Well, we still have to sort that out.

And I’m hoping that the German authorities release more information about precisely what works they have.  There was a very important news conference yesterday in Augsburg, and that was helpful.  They told us that there weren’t 1,500 works, as was previously reported, but 1,400, and started to give us a sense of what the works were. 

But we still don’t have a list, and we still haven’t seen images of the works, which — and both are very important for those of us in the restitution field.  We want to know what they have.  Presumably the works that were purged from German state collections, they will go back to German museums and they will be part of Germany’s cultural patrimony. 

But the other works, I think many of them are going to be subject to restitution.  Hopefully, the German authorities will allow victims and heirs to come forward and claim the works.  And I expect that there are going to be some disputed cases.  And that will result in lawsuits.  And so we will have to see how this — the legal aspect plays out. 

There is a precedent for pursuing Nazi-looted art in American courts.  And so I expect that we will see some — some cases here in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It’s a fascinating story. 

Jonathan Petropoulos, we thank you very much. 

JONATHAN PETROPOULOS:  Thank you.  It’s been a pleasure.