The Haunted Life of Cornelius Gurlitt

Ever since the story broke, I’ve been fascinated by the tale of Cornelius Gurlitt.  You may recall that in 2012, the reclusive, elderly German pensioner was discovered to be in the possession of hundreds of works of art by well-known artists, many of which were previously unknown or had been missing for decades.  Authorities believed a significant percentage of the collection was either Nazi loot, or forcibly sold by Jewish collectors to Gurlitt’s father, one of the Third Reich’s preferred art dealers.

Gurlitt died yesterday at his home in Munich, a small, rented apartment which had once been crammed with an estimated 1,400 artworks by artists such as Chagall, Picasso, Canaletto, and many others.  In February of this year it was revealed that Gurlitt’s country house, near the Austrian city of Salzburg, was filled with over 60 works by artists such as Monet, Manet, and Renoir.  Because of questions regarding the provenance of the art in his possession, Gurlitt eventually agreed to turn over the collection to the German authorities for investigation.  To the end Gurlitt remained convinced that all or most of the pieces would be determined to be rightfully his, and that his name would be cleared.

If you didn’t catch the superb article about Gurlitt in Der Spiegel a few months ago, interviewing him and detailing what is known about his life, it is very much worth your time.  Not only is it a superb piece of journalism and extremely well-written (kudos to the English translator, as well), but it imparts a profound sense of a man both living outside of time, yet simultaneously imprisoned by it.  One gets the sense that Gurlitt lived constantly in the presence of shadows, which were very real to him, so that in many ways these paintings were the physical embodiment of two diametrically opposed elements of his life.

On one hand, the art reminded him of all the family who had predeceased him, leaving him alone.  His personal failures, and his inability to achieve much of anything with his life, hung about him as he got older, as he looked at the works of art he had inherited by default as the last man standing.  In this Gurlitt at the end is vaguely reminiscent of the conclusion of di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”, with the rotting “relics” and questionable art held on to by the now-decadent Salina sisters.

On the other hand, in some respects Gurlitt’s hoard acted not as an albatross, but as a cocoon.  As the world around him changed, these familiar objects and the associations which he held with them, served to insulate him from reality.  Whether looking through portfolios of Old Master drawings in his little apartment, or visiting a host of glowing Impressionist paintings at his house in the country, he could imagine that his life was still promising, and that his family was just in the next room or down the hall.  They were all merely shadows by this point, yes, but in a way one supposes that they were comforting shadows, and he felt that they kept him safe from a world which he had been unable to come to terms with.

Gurlitt’s tale is an unfortunate one, for many reasons.  If, as is suspected, it turns out that some or all of the art he possessed was not rightfully his, but rather was illegally expropriated from those who were later murdered by the state, then it will be yet another sad, horrid chapter in the history of socialism.  It may take quite a long time for justice to be properly meted out, and at this late date one doubts that it will completely resolve the matter.  There will almost certainly have to be some kind of government inquiry regarding the possibility of settlement, and that may take years.

Imagine what might have happened if, upon inheriting these works of art, Gurlitt had done the right thing and stepped forward.  We would be reading a very different obituary today.  By that one voluntary act of giving up this collection, and working to ensure that these pieces were returned to their rightful owners, Gurlitt could have achieved what eluded him his entire life: a sense of purpose.  Instead of trying to hold on to these phantasms, if he had exposed them they would have lost their power over him.  He might have spent his life trying to do good for others, earning the respect and appreciation he craved.

Unfortunately, there can be little doubt that if he had not been caught, Gurlitt would never have made his collection known to the authorities.  The works might have been discovered later, upon his demise and the clearing of the contents of his homes, but then there would have been even fewer answers available to the authorities.  Whether Gurlitt was guilty of any prosecutable offenses, or what he would have done at the conclusion of the government investigations, we will never know.

When he returned to Munich earlier this week, after a recent heart operation in Salzburg, Gurlitt came home to an empty apartment.  It had been stripped of the art that had surrounded him his entire life.  One wonders whether the thought that he would probably never see the collection again came upon him, and perhaps that realization is what caused Gurlitt’s heart to give up at last.

Whatever the cause, the man who lived so much of his life in the shadows, has now become one.


The Hidden Cost of Hoarding

If you have ever bought a “fell-off-the-truck” or faux designer accessory from a street vendor, bid for such items in an online auction, or shopped at a retail establishment whose attempt to deceive knows no bounds, you may have overcome any qualms you might have had initially to end up feeling pretty good about your purchase.  Not only have you acquired some new item which, truth be told, you wanted but probably did not really need, but you avoided paying a lot of money for it. Unfortunately in many such cases, you may be paying a hidden, incalculable cost – for you may very well have helped to fund a criminal or a terrorist enterprise.

Yesterday Serbia announced the arrest of Goran Hadzic, whose deportation to stand trial for war crimes in The Hague is now being processed, and could take place as early as tomorrow. This comes on the heels of the arrest and deportation to The Hague of Serbian General Ratko Mladic in May. Yet whereas Mladic was discovered purely by chance, we are told that Hadzic made a mistake involving the attempted sale of a stolen or counterfeit work of art, and this is what brought the authorities to his door.

Reportedly Hadzic was running out of funds, and decided to try to sell a portrait he possessed, allegedly painted by the important Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920), whose distinctive style is immediately recognizable and highly prized by collectors of early Modern Art. The painting was discovered in the home of an associate of Hadzic’s in Belgrade earlier this year. Investigators followed the trail until they located Hadzic in the forests of northern Serbia, and arrested him without a fight.

The Modigliani portrait may be genuine, and stolen, or it may be a fake; its authenticity and provenance will be investigated. The news reports I have read so far have not contained an image of it, so it is impossible to speculate. Either way, assuming Hadzic could convince a potential buyer on the black market that the painting was genuine, experts believe he could have sold it for perhaps $100,000.

This amount is far, far less than what a real Modigliani would fetch in the legitimate art market; recently Sotheby’s sold one of his paintings for nearly $70 million. Nevertheless, its sale would still be a quick source of cash for an accused war criminal on the run. Art theft and art counterfeiting are at the higher end of criminal activity, and can be used to help keep a criminal or terrorist organization solvent, by providing emergency liquidity when bank accounts are frozen or other methods of raising large quantities of cash prove too time-consuming.

Most of us are not in the position to purchase works of art on the black market, or from legitimate sellers unaware of the provenance or authenticity of the art they are selling. However as we go about our day-to-day business, we will inevitably come across people selling stolen or counterfeit goods. It is important to keep in mind that in most cases, the profits from the sale of these goods are never declared, because they are being used in part to fund other illegal activities, including the sale of illegal weapons, human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.

As the New York Times reports,

the group accused of the Madrid train bombings in 2004, which killed 191 people, had used proceeds from the sale of pirated CDs to fund their activities. The U.S. authorities have also said that another group sells counterfeit goods, including fake Viagra, to support Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon.

Selling fake or stolen CD’s and pills does not seem like it would rake in as much cash as selling fake or stolen art, until you get into the question of volume. It is easier to sell large quantities of fake or stolen consumer goods, by spreading the goods out over a wide distribution area, than it is to sell a single fake or stolen painting for $100,000 to a single buyer.  Yet whether the goods being sold are works of art or Mr. Happy pills, there is a common, connective thread running through them all, and that is our human weakness and love of possessions, which is becoming increasingly pronounced the more secularist our society becomes.

Materialism, alongside moral relativism and plain old selfishness, has done a truly remarkable job in rotting our society from the inside out.  The modern American’s embrace of greed and acquisitiveness is, in many cases, only limited by income, and sometimes not even then.  The more things we own, the more we feel pleased with ourselves.

It is a type of thinking which, for many, proves to be an inescapable addiction.  We have seen its extremes in the popularity of programs like “Hoarders”, where people are quite literally so overwhelmed by the amount of their possessions that they are reduced to living in conditions worse than those of an animal in the wild.  Or we can tune in to financial advice programs like “The Suze Orman Show”, where people call in asking for permission to blow their savings on a Hummer or some other overpriced monstrosity, and are shocked when the common-sense Ms. Orman tells them, “Denied!” How dare anyone deny them their right to STUFF?

This is where counterfeiters and vendors of stolen products step in, to help feed the American addiction to materialism.  They are, in effect, using one of our greatest weaknesses against us.  Yet as we have seen, the connection between those selling fake or stolen goods and those who want to commit evil acts is often very strong.

Thus, the next time you find yourself somewhere like Canal Street in New York City, or looking at an online auction or listing site where the price of a new item seems too good to be true, stop and ask yourself what you may be complicit in funding.  For you may not only be feeding an addiction, as well as morally, if not criminally, being culpable of supporting acts of theft.  You may also be funding some truly horrible movements or organizations, using your own greed against you to commit horrific and brutal acts of violence against others.

Portrait of Leopold Zborowski by Amadeo Modigliani (1919)
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia