Gurlitt was born into a family of academics in Dresden. During WW I he was retrieved from the frontlines to serve with the Art Preservation and Momuments unit of which his father was a member. They were in Belgium to “preserve architecture and artifacts from destruction”. Unlike WW II German looting was modest in WW I and his father’s men did work to save artworks from being destroyed during the war.
After the war Gurlitt and his sister were well known members of the German Expressionist Movement.
After years of struggle in the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic Gurlitt became a museum director in the industrial city of Zwickau. Having gained a position in the art world he works to improve his position by publishing academic articles and acquiring a patron.
Gurlitt makes the most important business connection of his life when he gains auto parts industrialist (brake pads) Kurt Kirkbach as a patron. For the rest of his life Gurlitt will be dealing in art for and with Kirkbach.
Gurlitt first shows his talent for exploitation when he helps Kirkbach buy modern art from Germans left in desperate financial circumstances by the crash of 1929.
His prominence in modern art gets him fired by a Nazi leader in 1930 from his museum directorship.
Seeing the growing strength of the Nazis he no longer champions modern art but looks for ways to profit from his knowledge of German Expressionism.
He works out a clever scheme to buy Renaissance Art (approved as traditional art by the Nazis) in Italy to be sold in Germany and then buy German Expressionist works (the disapproved modern art) cheaply for sale in other countries such as the United States.
When the Nazis take over in 1933 there are many sellers of art, even more desperate, than the financially bankrupt of 1929.
Profit is all around for Gurlitt and a select group of art dealers. German museums are being forced to dispose of their modern art.
In 1936 the Nazis move to seizing art from German museums and a year later begin confiscating art from artists. It is estimated 21,000 works of art are taken.
Gurlitt is constantly receiving lucrative commissions for buying and selling these artworks. Occasionally he buys for himself at an unconscionably low price. One of his purchases is for but 1 Swiss Franc.
Once Germany starts taking over other countries the opportunities explode for Gurlitt and other official German art dealers. Between 1937 and 1941 a group of four dealers sold 8,700 artworks in Switzerland alone.
When Austria is annexed to Germany in 1938 there are confiscations of art and then expropriations.
Gurlitt gets a share of confiscated Jewish art.
His lack of morality is most evident in taking Jewish art for Gurlitt is one-quarter Jewish having a Jewish grandmother. Other members of his family agonize over whether to deny grandmother. While millions of Jews are persecuted and murdered Gurlitt continues to deal in art through the whole Holocaust. His Jewish ancestry is overlooked as he is useful to high ranking Nazis.
My next post completes my review of the book with an outline of his actions during WW II and the infamy gained by his son after the war.