Hitler's Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe's Treasures

Hitler's Art Thief: Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe's Treasures

by Susan Ronald


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The world was stunned when eighty-year old Cornelius Gurlitt became an international media superstar in November 2013 on the discovery of over 1,400 artworks in his 1,076 square-foot Munich apartment, valued at around $1.35 billion. Gurlitt became known as a man who never was - he didn't have a bank account, never paid tax, never received social security. He simply did not exist. He had been hard-wired into a life of shadows and secrecy by his own father long before he had inherited his art collection built on the spoliation of museums and Jews during Hitler's Third Reich. The ensuing media frenzy unleashed international calls for restitution, unsettled international relations, and rocked the art world.

Susan Ronald reveals in this stranger-than-fiction-tale how Hildebrand Gurlitt succeeded in looting in the name of the Third Reich, duping the Monuments Men and the Nazis alike. As an "official dealer" for Hitler and Goebbels, Hildebrand Gurlitt became one of the Third Reich's most prolific art looters. Yet he stole from Hitler too, allegedly to save modern art. Hitler's Art Thief is the untold story of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who stole more than art-he stole lives, too.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250096678
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 338,426
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Born and raised in the United States, SUSAN RONALD has lived in England for more than twenty-five years. She is the author of Heretic Queen, The Pirate Queen, The Sancy Blood Diamond, and France: Crossroads Of Europe. Ronald owns a film production company and is a screenwriter and film producer.

Read an Excerpt

Hitler's Art Thief

Hildebrand Gurlitt, the Nazis, and the Looting of Europe's Treasures

By Susan Ronald

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Susan Ronald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6682-9



The New York Times headlines on the war in Europe for May 1944 revealed "Wounded Dubious on Gains in Italy — Still a Long Way to Anzio," followed by "Germans Face Destruction in Italy — Whole Army May Suffer Fate of Stalingrad and Africa by Fight and Die." Domestic headlines ranged from "Aid for War Victims — Jewish Group Will Provide 300,000 Packages This Year" and "Smith, A Pint Please — Appeal Made to 420,000 of That Name to Give Blood" to "No Rise in Sugar Rations" and "Television Tests Asked for After the War." The arts — whether on stage, at the movies, in books, or in museums — gave a welcome escape into another world. The 1944 Oscar winner Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, still played in the movie houses, along with For Whom the Bell Tolls, based on Ernest Hemingway's book. Music, too, did its bit to soothe ravaged souls. The Andrews Sisters, big-band leaders Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and singing comedians Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made scores of films. La Bohème played at the Central Theatre, alternating with Aida, Faust, and La Traviata. Duke Ellington held his live performances at Carnegie Hall and also played live with his orchestra at the Brill Building's Hurricane Club on Forty-Ninth Street and Broadway. It was Ellington's swinging big-band draw — more than the naked lady strategically covered with a palm frond on its menu — that attracted its fully integrated audiences. In books, fiction reigned supreme. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, topped the New York Times best sellers' fiction list. Evelyn Waugh's saga Brideshead Revisited was crowned "first" of the worldwide English best sellers.

New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opened its exhibit of twenty- five-year-old W. Eugene Smith's photographs taken during the previous eight months in the Pacific theater of war. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) countered with a reopening of its picture galleries, having previously removed its priceless collection to safety. Americans remained generally unaware that they were targeted by art dealers and museum directors to help finance the Nazi war effort for years; and that "trading with the enemy" was the bread and butter of the American and British visual-arts market. Had they known at the time, the more outraged might have called for lynching the culprits, while law-abiding citizens would have cried out for trials based on high treason. Neither happened — then or later — and the art dealers for Hitler already suspected as much.

* * *

On a beautiful and sizzling May 29 morning, a few weeks before the D-day landings in 1944, a large shipment of 391 artworks was off-loaded at Manhattan's West Side docks. As usual, an agent from the Hudson Shipping Company signed off on the consignment and waited for his customs clearance. It wasn't the first shipment consigned to the New York gallery named after the German art dealer Karl Buchholz. In fact, the Buchholz Gallery was one of the Hudson Shipping Company's good clients since 1937. Its manager, Curt Valentin, was — so the agent claimed — the darling of the art world, a suave and sophisticated man of impeccable taste who'd somehow managed to save the modern art that Hitler wanted to destroy.

All of the artists on the manifest were expressionists — such as Ernst Barlach, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Gerhard Marcks, Otto Dix, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, and August Macke, to name names. There was even a bronze called Galloping Horse by Edgar Degas. Why this particular shipment attracted such attention is lost to posterity. Perhaps it was the sheer scope of the consignment or maybe because customs officials were alert to the fact that every artist was labeled "degenerate" by the Nazis that rang alarm bells. Possibly, the decision to investigate the shipment came from the countless briefings by Washington's Office of Alien Property, designed to confiscate any enemy property that would benefit America's foes.

More than likely, no one was more shocked than the luckless agent of the Hudson Shipping Company when he was told that the US government would be seizing the art shipment under the Trading with the Enemy Act. The expediter, Karl Buchholz, was an enemy alien. Valentin, too, had been a German. The Hudson Shipping Company had done nothing wrong, but if they allowed this "outrage" to go ahead, they'd probably lose a valued client. Chances are, threats or promises of cash under the table were made. Why or how such blandishments were refused is also lost in time, as are the names of the officers involved in the sequestration of the 391 artworks under Vesting Order 3711, signed by the Office of Alien Property's trusted second-in- command, James E. Markham.

Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the custodian for alien property could — if the shipper or recipient qualified as an enemy alien, as both Buchholz and Valentin did — hold, use, administer, liquidate, sell, or otherwise deal with the property in question in the interest, and for the benefit, of the United States through the issuance of a "vesting order." Naturally, the stateless Valentin, who had "fled" Germany in 1937 and avoided courting any unwanted government scrutiny successfully until then, was most anxious to have the artworks released. Things would, however, take a turn from bad to worse.

* * *

The Port of New York Authority thought, rightly, that there should be an official inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and contacted the field office on Lexington Avenue between Sixty-eighth and Sixty-ninth Streets. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's battle-hardened director, had made staunch efforts against Nazi fifth columnists and saboteurs, and the New York field office was primed and already working on counterintelligence and counterespionage investigations. The link between foreign-exchange transactions, art, and armaments hadn't gone unnoticed by Hoover.

The hunt for enemy aliens attempting to sell loot taken from Nazi victims figured high in the FBI's priorities. Consequently, it was the value, origin, and destination of the shipment that determined the FBI's need to ferret out the truth. Yet whether the FBI discovered what that truth was is anyone's guess. In its infinite wisdom, the FBI destroyed the Karl Buchholz and Curt Valentin file relating to the shipment toward the end of the twentieth century — without storing the information on microfilm or compact disc.

* * *

Earlier that same May, the putative seller of some of the Käthe Kollwitz artworks in the consignment, Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, dictated his own authorization to the director of Hitler's Führermuseum for unfettered travel to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. His purpose was to import artworks to Germany. The authorization made it clear that Gurlitt's use of the German railway system in these countries must receive top priority — even before troop movements.

By the time the shipment was vested by the Office of Alien Property in New York, Gurlitt was safely ensconced in his suite at the Grand Hotel on rue Scribe in Paris. In fact, he received a telegram there a few days prior to the vesting order from the director of the Führermuseum, who headed the "Sonderauftrag Linz," requesting that Hitler's thieving art dealer Gurlitt thank Walter Weber for the photo of the still-life painting from the school of Vallayer, but that it was of no interest to the museum at Linz. Gurlitt remained in Paris at the Grand Hotel during the D-day landings, leaving the city a mere six days before its liberation, on August 25, 1944.

How did the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt engineer such a position of power, where he could write his own travel authorization and use the railways to ship artwork when the Germans expected D-day at any moment? A second question, seemingly less interesting to some, is why no one ever made the link between Hildebrand Gurlitt and the shipment.

Even more damning is that on June 7, 1944, the day after D-day, Hildebrand Gurlitt was sent another telegram by Hitler's museum commission, Sonderauftrag Linz: "Acquiring Goya portrait from Edzard in case not yet packed in transport STOP And Guardi Ruins by the Sea from Dr. Lohse STOP Bring the pictures with you to Dresden or have them delivered through the Embassy STOP Regret deferred payment not possible."

* * *

Another seventy years would pass before the tie between the seized shipment and the pivotal relationship between Hitler's art thieves Karl Buchholz, Curt Valentin, and Hildebrand Gurlitt would be made.



This world is but a canvas to our imagination.

— Henry David Thoreau

What child could have imagined that civilization was on the brink of its bloodiest and first world war in 1907? Or that the saber-rattling Kaiser Wilhelm II was at loggerheads with his own family, Edward VII of Great Britain, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, enviously desiring to tear down their empires? Or that something called Bolshevism was harnessing its bad boy Joseph Stalin to rob a bank in the remote Georgian capital of Tiflis? That President Teddy Roosevelt was moved to call the second Hague Convention with the help of the determined peace campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Baroness Bertha von Suttner naturally fell outside any child's scope. Even milestones for youth like the first Montessori school opening its doors in Rome that year and Robert Baden-Powell's first Boy Scout camp on Brownsea Island in England would have gone unremarked. These international and life-changing matters never touched an affluent German boy's life. Yet the world of 1907 would change eleven-year-old Hildebrand Gurlitt — who would become notorious internationally as Adolf Hitler's art dealer in 2013 — for good and ill.

In the dying glow of summer, on September 15, Hildebrand would celebrate his twelfth birthday and enroll at long last at the Realgymnasium with his elder brother, Wilibald, nicknamed Ebb. This would be his last summer of innocence, the last summer where nothing would be expected of him. Like Wilibald, he'd be obliged to declare his major course of study from day one.

Hildebrand's elder sister, Cornelia, called Eitl by the family, opted for fine art, like their grandfather. Wilibald chose music. Although it was uncommon for women to wish to work, it was hardly shocking given the cry for women's rights that raged around the world. Besides, their mother Marie believed that a strong interest of one's own, other than what went on in the nursery, made a woman more interesting to her husband. Such an interest would also inspire a future husband from a good family to accept Cornelia, who seemed, more often than not, melancholic.

The arts also afforded refined opportunities and enrichment for all women of quality. On Hildebrand's paternal grandfather's side, wasn't their great-aunt the famous novelist Fanny Lewald? Their father, Cornelius, agreed. It was no leap of faith for his temperamental daughter to continue in the tradition, albeit in the fine arts. The male line of the Gurlitt family boasted several generations of successful writers, artists, and musicians swelling their ranks — all of whom promoted the Gurlitts to one of the premier cultural families in that most cultured city of Dresden.

* * *

Hildebrand looked forward to that summer, free from definitive decisions about his future. It was a miserably wet and cool spring, and hopes of turning his face to the warmth of the sun soon faded in the unseasonably chilly and damp summer. As the weeks inched by, inevitably the choice of his future career path loomed menacingly. The academic life, undertaken by his father and his uncles Wilhelm and Ludwig, was portrayed as appealing in family conversations. The idea of "going into trade" in business or the law, as had uncles Otto and Johannes or even poor dead Uncle Fritz, was never mentioned. As the youngest, Hildebrand instinctively knew it was frowned upon. The Gurlitt family was made for intellectual and artistic prowess, not grubbing about in trade.

Though the promise of warmth in that summer of 1907 was elusive, Hildebrand enjoyed his days in the company of Cornelia, aged sixteen, whom he adored, and their fifteen-year-old — much taller, most musical, and steadfast — brother, Wilibald. The relationship with Cornelia was strong and would haunt him in the years ahead. Often, she would draw him while they chatted about anything and everything. Hildebrand, whom they affectionately called Putz, confided his hopes and fears to her.

Normally, summer meant that he'd see quite a bit of his father, too, since Cornelius Gurlitt kept to the Technical University's calendar as its art and architecture historian. The elder Gurlitt extolled the beauty of Dresden's baroque architecture, though his international reputation as a baroque expert was still developing.

Hildebrand's mother, born Marie Gerlach, hailed from a family of high Saxony administrative officials, among whom numbered Hildebrand's maternal grandfather as a Justizrat, or judicial councillor, to the Land, or province, of Saxony. Honors, awards, and high praise were at the heart of Marie's upbringing, and it was only fit and proper that she expect more of the same for her husband. Though Cornelius became a Hofrat, or privy councillor in 1897, Marie was groomed to act as a true "Madame Privy Councillor." In her world, women never married beneath themselves.

While his parents' airs and graces might, at times, seem annoying to an eleven-year-old boy, the family's position was a matter of extreme pride. They were at the heart of Wilhelmine Germany and Pan-Germanism, proud of their country's vast cultural heritage. Perhaps part of Hildebrand's annoyance with Cornelius was that he saw his father reflected in himself. The quiet voice, the preference for strict privacy, the desire for an anonymous yet fruitful life — this mirror of his father — was already developed in him. Through his mother, there came a contrary voice. Her adherence to ceremony, her love of pomp and circumstance, was both comforting and maddening. Hadn't Goethe once said, "In the general throng, many a fool receives decorations and titles"? Hildebrand could be forgiven for wondering what other accolades could or should be heaped upon his father, or, indeed, the rest of the Gurlitt family.

Whatever irritations or slights Hildebrand may have felt that summer, or in the ensuing years, he was cosseted in a golden existence in the magical royal city of Dresden. Despite his angst, feigned or real, there was every expectation that this solid cultural reality would endure his entire life.

The elegant dressed-stone family home, at 26 Kaitzer Strasse, in the A-24 district of Dresden, lulled Hildebrand into this false sense of security. The house itself was set in its own grand and private park, behind low sandstone walls with gunmetal railings so passersby could peek in, yet never enter uninvited. It was a grand home that some understandably mistook for a museum, close to Dresden's Hauptbahnhof, or main railway station, and within walking distance of the baroque park of the Grosser Garten. Hildebrand could stroll among the garden's serene beauty, which overlooked the River Elbe, secure in the knowledge that his father was instrumental in awakening the world to the splendor of Dresden's baroque architecture. He could even visit a bust of the paterfamilias, now in his fifty-seventh year, which was erected in the garden precincts to commemorate Cornelius's achievements.

Dresden was the only home the boy had known. Cornelius moved his family to the Kaitzer Strasse residence when Hildebrand was only a year old. While they had always been a bourgeois middle-class family of artistic inclination, Cornelius came into money only after the death of Hildebrand's grandfather, the highly successful and admired nineteenth-century landscape painter Louis Gurlitt.

Hildebrand had no memories of the pretty little house at 4 Franklin Strasse, a mere few streets away from the main railway station. It was purchased initially to travel easily to see Uncle Fritz at the sanatorium. His childhood memories were replete with visits to and from the great and the good of Dresden, including the city's artists, writers, and musicians. Gentility, literature, architecture, music, and fine arts were at the heart of Hildebrand's universe. Still, the private, gilded world in which he lived would be shaken in the summer of 1907 by two disappointments and one outing with his mother.

While he never wrote about his disappointments, these emerged over time. Though not unusual for any adolescent boy or girl, in Hildebrand's case they stemmed from a sense of neglect at this crucial time in his life. Hildebrand learned in June that his father was planning his second trip to the Ottoman Empire for an article on the empire's art and architecture. The trip would take much of the summer holidays, and would exclude Hildebrand, Cornelia, Wilibald, and their mother. After all, Cornelius argued, the Ottoman Empire was no place to bring white, fair-haired women and children of quality. If they had voiced their protests, Cornelius would have reminded them that between his duties at the university and those as high councillor of Saxony it was self-evident that summer was the only appropriate moment when he could undertake any meaningful research into foreign art and architecture.


Excerpted from Hitler's Art Thief by Susan Ronald. Copyright © 2015 Susan Ronald. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

On Names and Acronyms xv

Prologue 1

Part I The Unmaking of the Man

1 New York, May 1944 9

2 At the Beginning-Germany, 1907 14

3 From The Hague to Vienna 24

4 Cause and Effect 33

5 War 42

6 Gurlitt's Struggle 54

7 Peace 71

8 Aftermath 82

9 Weimar Trembles 91

Part II Art and Politics

10 Rebels with a Cause 103

11 Hopes and Dreams 115

12 From New York to Zwickau 119

13 The Mysterious Mr. Kirchbaeh 125

14 The Root of Evil 133

15 Chameleons and Crickets 142

16 The First Stolen Lives 153

Part III World War and Wilderness

17 Chambers of Horrors 165

18 The Four Horsemen 174

19 Tradecraft 183

20 The Treasure Houses 190

21 The Posse Years 202

22 Swallowing the Treasure 212

23 Viau 225

24 King Raffke 231

25 Quick, the Allies Are Coming! 246

26 Surrendered … or Captured? 253

Part IV The Stolen Lives

27 House Arrest 265

28 Under the Microscope 280

29 Dusseldorf 295

30 Aftermath and Munich 302

31 The Lion Tamer 308

32 Feeding Frenzy 314

Glossary 321

Notes 325

Selected Bibliography 359

Index 369

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