Of the 1,500 precious artworks discovered in the filthy Munich apartment of a Nazi art dealer’s son in 2012, only 14 were identified as having once belonged to Jews, and this week the last of them was returned to the heirs.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was asked by Hitler to deal in the so-called “degenerate art” seized from Jewish collectors and others. The führer planned to exhibit these supposedly dangerous and subversive artworks in Austria.
Germany’s defeat in war led Hildebrand to stash the pieces, many looted. When he died in the 1950s his son Cornelius inherited them. A recluse who rarely left his room, he lived by occasionally selling one of his father’s collection.
The trove was eventually uncovered by accident, when tax inspectors who had obtained a warrant to search for evidence of tax evasion came across the hoard of masterpieces stacked under rotting cat food and piles of detritus.
Now ‘Das Klavierspiel’ (Playing the Piano) by Carl Spitzweg has been given to the auctioneers Christie’s for sale at the request of the descendants of music publisher Henri Hinrichsen, who once owned it. He was killed at Auschwitz in 1942.
German Culture Minister Monika Grütters said it sent “an important signal” and made “a contribution to historical justice and [the need to] fulfil our moral responsibility”.
After the artworks were discovered in 2012, a team of specialists began the slow and arduous task of investigating the provenance and history of each piece, largely unaided by an uncooperative Cornelius, who died in 2014.
The team established that the 19th century Spitzweg painting soon to be auctioned had been confiscated by the Nazis in 1939, just months after Hinrichsen bought it.
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