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The Hildebrandts: Gollum and Banksy

Monday, 18 November, 2013

In the legendarium of J. R. R. Tolkien, the figure of Gollum is one of the most memorable and frightening. Down through the centuries of his miserable existence, Gollum has come to love and loathe the Ring, just as he loves and despises himself. But the Ring, which Gollum calls “my precious”, brings him no joy because he’s torn between lust for it and a desire to be free of it. This is the tragedy of the hoarder.

There’s something of the Gollum in Cornelius Gurlitt, who stashed 1,280 paintings and drawings — masterworks believed to be worth more than $1 billion — in his Munich apartment. Speaking to Der Spiegel magazine last week, Gurlitt said he had not watched television since 1963 and had never gone online, but did talk to his pictures. He kept some of his favourites in a small suitcase that he would unpack each evening to admire and for more than half-century his only true friends were a huge collection of prized images created by Picasso, Chagall, Gauguin and a multitude of other modern masters. He inherited the works from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Third Reich-era art dealer, partly Jewish, and one of just four people authorized by the Nazis to trade so-called degenerate art during their reign.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Hildebrand Gurlitt was questioned by members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit of the United States military, the group of historians, curators and soldiers entrusted with safeguarding Europe’s cultural heritage. In his statements to investigators, he emphasized his anti-Nazi sentiments and claimed that he had never handled stolen art, and that the works in his possession were mostly “the personal property of my family or myself.” The Monuments Men concluded that he was not a key player in the art trade and later returned to him paintings, drawings and other fine art objects. After his death in 1956, his son Cornelius inherited the family treasures and kept them, and most of the art world, in the dark for another five decades. His precious.

Unlike his Gollum-like son, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a worldly figure, a true opportunist and a totally amoral individual. His assistant, Karl Heinz Hering, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his boss knew how to satisfy those post-war customers with large wallets, zero taste and a longing for a little Heimat on their walls. “Well-off hunters used to come to the gallery, but most of the paintings on offer were by French artists, who were inspired mainly by the atmospheric aspects of landscapes. No hunting animals or familiar fauna, in other words. But Gurlitt was clever and he didn’t want to see the disciples of art going home empty handed so he’d find someone who could insert an imposing stag in a grove or a copse.”

This sounds a bit like Banksy, who bought a kitsch painting for $50 in New York last month and added a Nazi officer enjoying the bucolic Bavarianish landscape. It would be Hitler’s idea of perfect art, so Bansky titled it “The Banality of the Banality of Evil”. It was sold for $615,000 with the money going to the homeless charity Housing Works. Unlike Banksy, however, Cornelius Gurlitt isn’t giving anything away.

Banksy


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