The last of the 14 artworks deemed to be unequivocally Nazi-looted in the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer who built a private collection in the process of helping the Nazis sell stolen art, was restituted to the descendants of its rightful owner on January 12 and is bound for Christie’s at their request. The return of Biedermeier artist Carl Spitzweg’s “Das Klavierspiel (Playing the piano)” (c. 1840) has been a long time in the making: the drawing was recommended for restitution to the heirs of Dr. Henri Hinrichsen in October 2014. Per the Art Newspaper, Hinrichsen’s granddaughter Martha Hinrichsen, who led the family effort to have the work returned, died in 2016.
Spitzweg’s drawing depicts a woman playing piano accompanied by a man playing the flute. Hinrichsen, a well-known Jewish music publisher and art collector in Leipzig who was also a patron of Germany’s first private university for women, purchased the work in 1939. That same year, the Nazis seized the work along with others from Hinrichsen’s collection. The drawing was then purchased by Hildebrand Gurlitt’s art gallery in Hamburg, with the money from the sale going to a blocked account inaccessible to Hinrichsen. Hinrichsen would go on to be murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. Two of his sons also died in the Holocaust, and his diabetic wife died in Nazi-occupied Brussels because she was denied insulin. Hildebrand Gurlitt was exonerated of criminal collaboration in 1947, went on to become Director of the Art Association for the Rhineland and Westphalia, and died in a car accident in 1956.
“Playing the piano” hung in the hallway of the home of the art dealer’s widow Helene Gurlitt. In 1966, when she was approached by officers conducting an inquiry into the misappropriation of Hinrichsen’s property, she said that she had never seen the work. Like her husband before her, she falsely claimed that Gurlitt’s art collection and business documents were destroyed in the 1945 Dresden bombing raid. Spitzweg’s drawing was one of many works inherited by Cornelius Gurlitt after Helene’s death. The bulk of Cornelius Gurlitt’s inherited hoard of over 1,500 artworks was discovered and confiscated by Bavarian tax authorities in 2012. The trove included important works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, and Édouard Manet, as well as family heirlooms and “dealer stock,” or less important works on paper. Because of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s role for the Nazi government, the provenance of the works in the collection was instantly viewed as suspicious.
When the younger Gurlitt died in 2014, he left the entire collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. The museum accepted the collection but committed to collaborating with the German and Bavarian governments on conducting rigorous provenance research and restituting any works that were identified as stolen. That year, German officials said that three of the works in the trove would be returned immediately: Max Liebermann’s “Two Riders on the Beach,” seized from art dealer Paul Rosenberg; Henri Matisse’s “Femme Assise,” looted from art collector David Friedmann; and Spitzweg’s “Playing the piano,” taken from Hinrichsen.
By the end of 2017, the government-funded Gurlitt Provenance Research Project had completed its research. Of the items investigated, over 600 were found to lack clear wartime provenance, leaving much of the investigation inconclusive. The team ultimately ascertained that 14 works, including the three initially flagged, were proven to be Nazi-looted and should be restituted. Gradually, the 14 works have been returned to their rightful owners. The fact that “Playing the piano” was not restituted until now may have to do with the legal complications tied up with the Hinrichsen family’s large size; the Hinrichsens had two daughters and five sons.
In a statement on the restitution of Spitzweg’s drawing to Hinrichsen’s heirs, German minister of culture Monika Grütters expressed that it was an “important sign” that all of 14 works had now been returned. “Behind every one of these pictures stands a human, tragic fate such as that of Auschwitz victim Dr. Henri Hinrichsen,” she said. “We cannot make up for this severe suffering, but we are trying with the appraisal of Nazi art looting to make a contribution to historical justice and fulfill our moral responsibility.”