Germany has identified four drawings that Nazis stole from a Jewish home during the Third Reich. The art belonged to the Deutsch de la Meurthe family, who lived in Paris when Germany invaded and occupied France. Nazis seized their house—all but Georgette, the youngest daughter, died in the Holocaust—and used it to store other stolen art and furniture from Jewish families.
The Deutsch de la Meurthe drawings surfaced after researchers posted about them in Germany’s Lost Art database in July 2017, and an anonymous owner came forward with them. Researchers have since traced the drawings to Hildebrand Gurlitt, the head buyer for Adolf Hitler’s planned Führermuseum. Hildebrand gave the drawings and 14 other pieces to his daughter, Benita Gurlitt, who died in 2012. However, it’s not clear how Hildebrand got his hands on the Deutsch de la Meurthe drawings in the first place.
One of the biggest reasons Nazis stole art was because Adolf Hitler wanted to build an art museum that only featured work by “Aryan” Germans. He planned to establish his Führermuseum, or “Leader Museum,” in the Austrian city of Linz, which he considered his hometown. Most of all, Hitler wanted the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. This was a large, Belgian church piece that the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to give back to Belgium. (The 2014 film Monuments Men dramatizes the Allies’ operation to recover some of this art.)
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At the same time, Hitler wanted to purge German museums of art by Jewish people and communists, as well as art that seemed too modern or un-German. In 1937, Nazis held a “Degenerate Art” exhibit to highlight these types of pieces. Over the next few years, Germany removed and stole tens of thousands of “degenerate art” from state and private collections. Nazis burned some of these pieces and sold others abroad. Only four German art dealers had approval to sell “degenerate art,” and Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of them.
German officials discovered most of the known pieces in Hildebrand’s stash in his son’s apartments in 2012. Authorities found hundreds of these works while investigating his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, for tax evasion. Between Cornelius’ apartments in Munich and Salzburg, authorities confiscated 1,566 pieces. The included pieces by artists like Pablo Picasso, whose cubism Nazis considered to be degenerate art.
The discoveries in Cornelius’ apartments spawned a task force charged with determining the pieces’ provenance and whether Nazis had stolen them (Nazis purchased some “Aryan” artwork around Europe, and state museums may have willingly handed over “degenerate art”). Before his death in 2014, Cornelius agreed to restitute any work that was illegally obtained. However, determining the works’ provenance has proved very difficult.
“Even though we have good funding and perfect researchers, even they sometimes can't clarify a provenance to say that this is a work that came from a family or not,” Andrea Baresel-Brand, head of the Department of Lost Art and Documentation for the German Lost Art Foundation, told Live Science.
Only a few pieces from Cornelius’ stash have been returned to the heirs of the artworks’ original owners. Now, the four Deutsch de la Meurthe drawings have also been restituted to the family’s heirs. With the family’s approval, these drawings by Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen, Augustin de Saint Aubin and Anne Vallayer-Coster are on display until January 2019 at the Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, along with other pieces from the famous Gurlitt stash.