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When the German government announced last November that it had seized more than 1,200 artworks — including paintings by Picasso, Chagall and Durer — from the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer, the discovery renewed international attention to Nazi-era art theft. Many advocacy groups believed the works were obtained illegally and hoped they’d be returned to their rightful owners. But in a surprising twist, prosecutors announced this week that they would release the paintings back to the German collector. We get the latest.
- Stephen Evans Berlin Correspondent, BBC
A Look At Seized Art
When 1,200 artworks were seized from the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer last year (some featured in the gallery below) they were described as “looted.” But this recent decision revealed some of the paintings were actually purchased before the Third Reich. We’ll discuss this issue, and others, on today’s program.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, using cartoons to poke fun at the serious and the sacred, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff joins us in studio. But first, an update to one of last year's strangest stories in the international art world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILast November, German authorities announced a stunning discovery. More than 1200 artworks including works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse had been discovered in a rundown apartment in Munich. The apartment's owner, the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer, the government seized the paintings believing that many had been looted from Jewish families during the Third Reich.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut this week prosecutors made a stunning announcement that they planned to return some of the confiscated art to the controversial collector. We're on the line with BBC correspondent Stephen Evans who has been covering the story. Stephen, thank you for joining us.
MR. STEPHEN EVANSYou're welcome. You're very welcome.
NNAMDIStephen, last November German prosecutors made this announcement. It surprised a lot of people inside and outside the international art world. They had seized artwork worth over a billion dollars in a rundown flat in Munich. Remind us of how they came to seize this art.
EVANSA guy called Cornelius Gurlitt was caught taking cash from Germany to Switzerland. He was taking just under the legal limit when customs officials stopped him on a train. They searched him in the toilet and they found this cash. It was, as I say, within the legal limit but they thought, what's this guy up to? What's he doing ferrying cash across presumably to a Swiss bank account? And they then looked at his apartment in Munich, quite a fancy area of Munich and discovered 1,280 works of art, all -- some of them of the highest caliber, the kind of things that any gallery would want in its collection.
EVANSAnd they also then looked at his house in Salzburg, which is boarded up and rundown and found another 260 works of art. So between the two of them, something like 1500 works of art, which he'd inherited from his father who was an art dealer in Germany approved by the Nazis to deal in art. So the obvious implication of all of that is that some of that art would've been looted. Some of that art would've been taken off the walls of museums because it was (unintelligible) what the Nazis thought of as decadent, i.e. anything modern or done by -- or depicting a strong woman for example, one of them.
EVANSAnd so the whole thing was controversial. It was completely secret. He kept -- when his father died he kept this stuff, in some cases all in a kind of complete mess in his house in Salzburg with paper up to your chest. This man hoarded stuff. And when investigators went in...
NNAMDIBecause I was wondering, how large was this apartment that he had in Munich that he could have 1,280 paintings in it? How were they stored?
EVANSWell, they were -- I mean, some of them were in frames and they were stored upright. But a lot of them were flat. I mean, it wasn't that big of an apartment. You know, I used to know Amstreet (sp?) in Washington Northwest, and it was that kind of apartment, you know. I mean, a reasonable apartment but nothing that glam. But, you know, he's a reclusive guy. And the people who know him -- he's now very confused and he's recovering from heart surgery because of the shock of this whole thing -- but the people who know him or talk to him now say, he treated these painting like his friends.
EVANSHe had the shutters down. He would go and talk to them and sit with them. And so in the Munich apartment they were kept in pretty good condition. But in the Salzburg house, they were -- they had spiders crawling all over them. I've seen some of these painting since and they've still got mildew on them. You go into the warehouse -- this top secret warehouse in a city -- I can't tell you even where the city is -- and you see these things and you think, well blimey, that's a Renoir over there isn't it? (laugh) And you go up to it and you realize it is.
EVANSBut actually it's a bit underwhelming because there's so much grime on these things that they don't shine. You see a Monet in the big gallery in Washington and it jumps out of the wall at you. It shines, you know, it glistens, whereas you see the Monet in the warehouse in that place I can't mention and it's sort of a bit grimy. And that's because...
NNAMDIYou can almost overlook it.
EVANS...it is a bit grimy.
NNAMDIWe have some images on our website kojoshow.org from the German press conference last November announcing the seizure of the works. If you'd like to see that you can go there at kojoshow.org. Stephen, this week prosecutors basically indicated that they would be returning some or maybe most of this artwork. What is the rationale for returning it to Mr. Gurlitt?
EVANSThe rationale, according to virtually every German paper you read, is that the whole thing's a mess. Basically, Mr. Gurlitt's lawyers have gone to the courts in German and said, those people have got my property. I want it back. You have to rule it's my property. I want it back. They shouldn't have taken it. And the courts have ruled with him.
EVANSSo what the prosecutor -- the whole thing was a big shambolic anyway in that it took them a year -- the prosecutors now, it took them a year to reveal that they'd even got this stuff. So Jewish groups for example said, well that's outrageous. How can people claim back their property probably looted by the Nazis if they're not even told that the stuff's in the custody of the authorities?
EVANSSo there was heaps of criticism at the time the thing was revealed back in November. And now there's even more criticism because the newspapers here say, well hold on a minute. You took it saying it was a legal seizure and now the courts have ruled you can't keep it. What's going on?
EVANSSo what will now happen is that the stuff will be released by the authorities. You presume you can't just stick it on the back of a truck and drive it back to his flat so it will probably be put in a private sector, a privately owned secure warehouse where it will be examined by experts in these things. And the provenance of the paintings will be investigated.
EVANSAnd lawyer -- sorry, and people who say that's my painting, including a guy in New York, for example, who has a son in Washington will come forward and say, that's my painting. That was on my grandfather's wall. Give it back. And those paintings will be given back. But there's an awful lot of gray area about the bulk of the collection. And my suspicion is that Mr. Gurlitt will get to keep most of them.
NNAMDIIndeed, Mr. Gurlitt disputes the idea that most of these artworks were looted. And in this most recent development, they asked the court to find that the prosecutors did not have the right to hold these paintings. Here's an excerpt of what his lawyer, Stephen (sic) Holzinger told Stephen Evans.
MR. STEPHAN HOLZINGERHis father was one of the most famous art dealers in the Third Reich. Cornelius Gurlitt is no dealer type at all. He's a very shy person and he has made clear to his custodian and to us to give back any artwork which doesn't belong to him.
NNAMDIThat's Stephan Holzinger, the lawyer for Mr. Gurlitt. Exactly how much of this art is in dispute, Stephan Evans? How much was looted?
EVANSWe don't know. What his lawyers say is that there are of these 1500 works of art, 300 were acquired by Gurlitt's father before the Nazis came to power. So there's no dispute over that. There have been claims for six painting -- actually seven claims for six painting, so two of the claimants are in dispute with each other. And that muddies the waters. So between those six where I think there'll be no dispute, they'll go back to the descendents of people who had them looted.
EVANSAnd the 300 -- something like -- you know, I can do the math -- something like 1200, there will be disputes over. And of course the difficulty is -- well, one difficulty is that German law says you've got to make your claim within 30 years, and that's past, and to which Jewish groups say, well, you know, how can we make a claim when we didn't know the stuff existed?
EVANSBut apart from that, a lot of this stuff might have been bought but under duress. Obviously if you fear for your life you might sell what you've got at a knock-down price. And also some of this stuff might've been bought and sold and sold again. So at the end of it all, it's a legal, and I think probably a moral mess as well, with embarrassment for the German authorities.
NNAMDIYeah, because even though some of these families may have sold their art, as you said, under duress, it might be an indication of an injustice but it's not quite the same as looting, is it?
EVANSWell, it depends how much duress, doesn't it? I mean, you know, if you sold something in 1938 where you could see the true nature of the Nazis full in the face is it were, and you were just thinking, I've got to get out of here. I've got to go to Switzerland or Britain or the U.S. and I can't take anything with me, and you sell your Matisse for a fraction of the price, that's a lot of duress, you know? And you could argue, I think, and your lawyers would argue, that in effect that's looting.
EVANSYou know, it's -- all right, some money changed hands but it's so far short of the true worth of something that it amounts to looting. But it is a legal gray area, no doubt about that.
NNAMDIWhen this story first emerged in November it refocused attention on the complex challenge of recovering stolen artworks. Now it seems we have an even better illustration of how difficult it is to figure out just who owns what and how to return items, does it not?
EVANSYeah, and there is a genuine difficulty. And you can see it -- I mean, this (word?) -- I mean, the father who weirdly had a Jewish background, you know, licensed by the Nazis to deal in art but with a Jewish background, which presumably they weren't aware of. So that area of it -- given the length of time -- and he also dealt in art after the war -- given the length of time in which he traded in art, there are obviously different situations there. And obviously the people who know the detail of it, the people who made the sales or whose art was stolen from them are either very old, as is the case with the guy in New York, or they're dead, you know.
EVANSSo the legal difficulties are obvious anyway, but some people argue that the German authorities could've been a lot more forward and a lot more eager, I think would be the right word, to get this stuff back to people who would be regarded as the rightful owners. In other words to do justice by the descendents of the people who died or survived the Holocaust.
NNAMDIWhich means that this may not be the last time we see or hear about either this story or Cornelius Gurlitt, right Stephen?
EVANSThat is absolutely true. Of that there is no doubt. This thing hasn't gone away.
NNAMDIStephen Evans. He's Berlin correspondent for the BBC. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWhen we come back after this short break, using cartoons to poke fun at the serious and the sacred. New York cartoon editor Bob Mankoff joins us in studio. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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