Hope was sparked last week for hundreds of families in Germany and throughout Europe with the announcement by Reinhard Nemetz, head of the prosecutors’ office in Augsburg, of a discovered hoard of artworks (121 framed and 1,285 unframed works) acquired by art dealer Mr Gurlitt during the period from 1930 to 1945. Gurlitt is thought to have acquired these works through various means during the pre-war period in Germany and Eastern Europe and thus the ownership of many of the works can be contested. These precious artworks, thought to be in a good condition, will now be subject to an intense search for their rightful owners, many of whom were forced to flee Germany during the 1930s and sold their artworks at far below market value to the German art dealer.
As more and more details emerge of this case, it appears that this haul was first discovered over a year ago when Mr Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius, was being investigated for tax evasion. The reason given for keeping this find secret until recently was that it made it easier to track rightful owners and work through legal issues before making a public announcement. However over the following week criticism has mounted and now 25 of the works are listed on LostArt.de in order to track their rightful owners.
This exciting cache of artworks that includes a previously unknown works by Chagall, as well as works that were thought to have been destroyed during the allied bombing of Dresden during the Second World War which include pieces by Canaletto and Courbet.
Although this is a reason to celebrate a discovery of such a valuable haul of hidden art, it also serves as a poignant reminder of the work of agencies like the Commission for Looted Art in Europe that work tirelessly to track down art stolen, looted or acquired in dubious circumstances in Europe. Although this particular collection of works is estimated to be worth 1 billion euros, it is a tiny fraction of the art missing from the period. One shocking statistic, provided by Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, states that 90% of works sought by their owners are still untraced.
Hopefully this announcement will serve as a reminder to the art world to remain vigilant to art with missing provenance, and that every effort is made to ensure the efforts of those working to track down stolen art is brought into the spotlight.National Gallery of Art, Washington