From Dresden to Aschbach to Düsseldorf—New Scholarship in U.S. Archives Traces Hildebrand Gurlitt at War’s End, Could Affect Cornelius Gurlitt’s Claim to Good Faith Ownership

The Main Post has an article today (in German) by Christine Jeske tracing the late-war and post-war trajectory of Hildebrand Gurlitt and his now-infamous collection.  The article is fascinating, and sheds considerable light on how the collection came through the war and how Gurlitt evaded greater scrutiny that might have revealed the trove’s whereabouts earlier.  It also puts into context any claim Cornelius Gurlitt might now have to argue he took possession of the paintings from his father unaware of their provenance—what will be a critical argument, particularly if yesterday’s Cultural Property Restitution Law proposal by Bavaria becomes federal law in German. 

The journalist has found a confidential witness statement made to Allied authorities that directly contradicts the statements that Gurlitt himself gave.  It is impossible to know why or whether this witness statement was kept a secret.  Clearly, a statement that Gurlitt arrived in Aschbach with a truckload of art in Franconia in March, 1945 is incompatible with his own statement that everything was destroyed in February, 1945 in Dresden particularly where, as I understand, saying “it was destroyed in Dresden” was by the end of the war considered a flimsy pretext.  Presumably whoever interrogated Gurlitt, or later approved his release and the return of his collection, had not seen a statement that was by then well in existence.  Or at least one hopes not. 

According to Jeske, Gurlitt returned to his hometown of Dresden in 1942 from Hamburg.  Hildebrand was himself the son of a famous architect and professor, Cornelius, after whom the younger Gurlitt is named (I recently drove by Cornelius Gurlit–Straße in Dresden in December—named after the professor who died in 1938, not the man in whose apartment the art was found). 

As the war drew to its chaotic close between March and May, 1945, special transport trains crammed with stolen art began to head south await from the advancing front.  As Jeske reports, at least two of these trains ended up in Aschbach (today part of Schlüsselfeld) in the Franconia (Franken) region of Bavaria (roughly halfway between Würzburg and Nuremberg), in the castle of Freiherr (Baron) Gerhard von Pölnitz.  One of these transports is from Dresden, and contains the very collection that would later be found by Bavarian tax authorities.  Another is from Berlin, with the collection of Karl Haberstock, another Nazi-authorized dealer. 

Only a few weeks after his arrival in Aschbach, Hildebrand Gurlitt is called to be interviewed by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA )—the “Monuments Men” to be featured in next month’s George Clooney movie—to explain himself.  Hildebrand Gurlitt’s art and book collection will be confiscated and taken to Collecting Point of the U.S. Army in Wiesbaden (the other was in Munich).

To place this in context, an arrival in Aschbach in March or April, 1945 would have been barely a month or two after the firebombing of Dresden, in which Gurlitt later claims to the MFAA that his collection was destroyed.  Regardless, Aschbach and the remainder of Bavaria are occupied by British and American troops in April, 1956, and the war ends on May 8, 1945. 

According to Jeske, there are documents in the National Archives that undermine the version of events that Gurlitt gave to the Monuments Men.  A witness statement dated April 29, 1946 before the Bavarian military government states “that in March, 1945, Dr. Gurlitt arrived in Aschbach from Dresden with two trucks loaded with an estimated 100 crates and had settled in the castle of Baron Gerhard von Pölnitz.  The boxes were all marked ‘Gemäldegalerie Dresden’ [the famous Dresden Museum].”  This still-unidentified witness describes the contents as French paintings, engravings and rare books, as well as some gold. 

Notably, the witness asks that his statement be kept confidential, and that it is yet to be determined where the contents of those 100 boxes were by the time of his statement. 

Thereafter, Gurlitt and Haberstock are brought to Würzburg and imprisoned.  They are interrogated chiefly by Erik Berger, the Berlin art historian who joined the MFAA in 1945.  Berger is believed to have been an employee before 1945 of Wolfgang Gurlitt (a cousin of Hildebrand Gurlitt who also sold art for the Nazis), who briefly moved his gallery to Würzburg after 1943 to do business with Heiner Dikreiter, Director of the Städtische Galerie. 

That revelation by the Mainz Post is a reminder of one of the odd developments earlier in the Gurlitt story: the return of 22 paintings by (the younger) Cornelius Gurlitt’s  brother in law, a story that was reported soon after the discovery, but to which there has been little attention since.

Berger’s own past is somewhat clouded; internal investigations in 1946 by the U.S. military revealed possible collaboration with art dealer Walter Paech, who was himself believed to have traded in looted art in Amsterdam.  Berger was nonetheless reinstated and returned to the Monuments Men in 1947, and later works for the state authority for commemoration sites.

Gurlitt, as is now known, convinces the Allies of his persecuted status and receives nearly his entire collection back in 1951, selling or giving up approximately 150 of the works.  He becomes director of the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf in 1948.  Haberstock too is given only a slap on the wrist, classified as a hanger-on rather than a wrongdoer.  His collection ends up in Augsburg (where the prosecutor now responsible for all this is), and now belongs to the Karl and Magdalene Haberstock Foundation. 

Does all this affect Cornelius Gurlitt’s ability to argue he took the paintings in good faith?  Why did no one follow up on the witness’s statements about the location of the remainder of the collection?  What became of Baron von Pölnitz?  What else do U.S. archives hold on the topic?