Is this your lost family ‘Nazi art’?

The Kunstmuseum Bern

It is five years from the authorities in Germany discovered about 1500 works of art held by Cornelius Gurlitt, then, at the age of 79 years. He had inherited the work of artists ranging from Old Masters to Picasso – from his father, a merchant who worked with the Nazis to acquire important works of art from Jewish families. Now exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland, highlighting on the display, in the hope of alerting children, who may be the owners.

Gurlitt, suddenly, it came to the attention of the public in 2013, the German authorities had already known for a year, an incredible treasure of works of art had been found in his address to the Munich and Salzburg. The artists ranged from Picasso, Dürer and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Initially, the officials tried to keep the discovery secret. After all, Gurlitt seemed to have broken no law. But a news magazine got hold of the story.

The collection was inherited by Gurlitt’s father Hildebrand, an important art dealer who died in 1956. Hildebrand served Nazi Germany leadership in three ways: it has helped to acquire important works from Jewish families at prices well below their true value, has sold examples of the so-called “degenerate art” abroad; he was involved in the assembly of pieces for the great “Museum of the Fuhrer”, which is planned for Linz, Austria.

The Kunstmuseum Bern

The works of art are often described as having been looted from Jewish families. But Rein Wolfs, director of the Federal Art Gallery in Bonn, says the images of Nazi stormtroopers violently pulling the paintings from the walls, are misleading.

“This has been a long bureaucratic process, forcing Jewish owners to sell works of art of their properties. For some it has become a sort of Departure Tax, which meant that they were allowed to leave the country for South America or wherever. Eighty years later, the question is which parts of the Gurlitt hoard has come from that source? This is an extremely complex problem.”

The Bonn exhibition is one of the two in parallel. The gallery in Bonn is showing 250 images that cast light on the insidious process of acquisition of art and on the stories of the legitimate owners, many of whom perished in the Holocaust.

The other exhibition is in Bern, Switzerland. It focuses on the question of “enterartete Kunst,” or degenerate art, the Nazis wanted to erase from the German culture.

The Kunstmuseum Bern

Lupi says that the program is not, as people sometimes imagine, target only Jewish artists. “The Nazis wanted to remove all Modernist works in the public galleries and museums: they held the Modernism against German values. It was a ruthless attempt to eradicate what they have doubted and hated and there is an obvious parallel with the Holocaust.”

No one claims all 1500 works of art were taken from Jewish families forced to sell: Hildebrand Gurlitt was an active art dealer for many decades. Walking through the exhibition in Bonn with the Wolves and the complexity of discovering the provenance (ownership history) of each piece is clear.

The Kunstmuseum Bern

“For example, we have a wonderful Monet painting of Waterloo Bridge in London, made in 1903. We do not have any direct indication it was ever a work of art looted. But we also need to be absolutely complete, and there is a strange detail: we know that the mother of Hildebrand Gurlitt, in 1938, has written a note confirming that, years before, he had given the Monet as a gift for his marriage. But because the mother also needs to state that fact? – it seems strange and we are still investigating.

Wolves points to a pair of small paintings by Eugene Delacroix, called the Eastern Knight. “They are another example of the problems that we face. There are clearly deficits of our knowledge and we do not know when they were purchased by Hildebrand Gurlitt.

“All expect that the team that makes the origin of a search with the answers very fast. But in many cases the books are missing, and the whole of the archives no longer exist.

“It seems that the Delacroix images are not under suspicion of being looted. But if someone makes a request we will always investigate seriously. It is one of the main purposes of the exhibitions: we want people to make claims if they believe the heirs of the legitimate owners.”

Stefan Koldfehoff is a well-known German arts journalist who has written a book on the Gurlitt affair.

The Kunstmuseum Bern

“At first the authorities in Germany has not managed the situation well: no one seems to have realised how huge the story. But in the end they saw that this was a way to portray themselves as people who would like to do something good for the victims of the Holocaust and for those who are still looking for the art work”.

Cornelius Gurlitt died in 2014 and has donated his collection of Bern. But Koldehoff says that, in so doing, gave the German state a difficult task.

“Germany has said not to release works for the Swiss, until all doubt about their story is over. A whole team is working to achieve this goal. But from what I understand there are around 400 cases which are proving to be very difficult or impossible to find all of the answers.

“Only a handful of works have been returned so far, descendants of the owners by the Nazis. So, in the end, I am sure that there will always be a remainder that are impossible questions to research. But the exhibitions are really a way of trying to be transparent”

Gurlitt: the Nazi Art Theft and its Consequences runs the Federal Art Gallery in Bonn, Germany, until 11 March 2018.

Gurlitt: ‘Degenerate Art’ run at the Art Museum of Bern, Switzerland, until 4 March 2018

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