Two new exhibitions look at how Hildebrand Gurlitt was able to exploit the Nazi system in order to amass a vast collection of work by ‘degenerate artists’ and Jewish collectors, writes Cath Pound.

The discovery of almost 1500 artworks including examples by Picasso, Munch, Matisse, Kirchner and Klee in the properties of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012 stunned the art world. The ‘Munich Art Hoard’, as it became known, was immediately suspected of being looted during the Nazi era, not least because Cornelius’s father was the celebrated art historian and dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt – a man who it transpires was prepared to exploit every aspect of Nazi policy to personally enrich himself, despite his Jewish heritage.

Perhaps the publicity pricked Cornelius’s conscience, for on his death in 2014 he controversially left the hoard to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, stipulating that the provenance of the works be examined and any looted art returned to the heirs of the original owners.

The rise of the National Socialists meant that anyone seen to promote ‘degenerate art’ came under pressure

The first exhibitions to analyse the collection, jointly organised between the Kunstmuseum in Bern and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, are not art historical in any conventional sense. Instead they focus on the circumstances which allowed Hildebrand Gurlitt to build his collection; the persecution of ‘degenerate artists’ and Jewish collectors and dealers under the Nazi regime.

Hildebrand Gurlitt’s taste in art ran counter to the men who would become his masters and twice cost him his job, first at the Zwickau museum where his exhibitions of Die Brücke artists such as Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Emil Nolde fell foul of the Militant League for German Culture, and then at the Kunstverein in Hamburg where the rise of the National Socialists meant that anyone seen to promote ‘degenerate art’ came under pressure, and he was forced to resign in 1933.

Classified as a quarter Jew under the Reich Citizenship Laws because of his Jewish grandmother, Gurlitt was no longer able to work for the state. Relying on the excellent contacts he had made as a museum director he set himself up as a dealer, taking the precaution of registering the business under the name of his Aryan wife Helene.

Here he was, cautiously, still able to exhibit artists he favoured such as those of Die Brücke and the later Expressionists including Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann.

Taking advantage

He soon became very successful – but it is clear that his success relied largely on the exploitation of other Jewish dealers and collectors. Membership of The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts became compulsory for dealers and from 1935 Jews were systematically excluded, forcing them to liquidate their collections and allowing dealers like Gurlitt to benefit from lower-than-market prices as well as the increasing lack of competition.

“When we speak about looting and art theft it normally wasn’t robbing: it was a more, let’s say subtle, way of getting these works,” says Rein Wolfs, Director of the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. “It was mostly by suppression or by putting so much pressure on somebody that he had to sell.”

Gurlitt took advantage of the vulnerable position of Jewish collectors forced to sell work to finance punitive Nazi fines or the cost of emigration. One such example is the Adolph von Menzel drawings bought from the Cohen family in the mid 1930s, most likely to finance a flight to the United States.  He paid between 120 and 200 Reichsmarks per drawing. “Which was only a fraction of what they were worth at the time,” says Wolfs.

The artists Gurlitt favoured were also suffering due to the virulent campaign against ‘degenerate art.’ Max Beckmann was accused of being a ‘cultural Bolshevik’ and dismissed from his teaching post, as was Otto Dix.  Despite publically declaring his allegiance to Hitler and the Nazis, Heckel was also deemed ‘degenerate’.

The Nazis decided to profit from the art they despised by selling it to foreign collectors, with the intention of destroying all that went unsold

Paul Klee was removed from his teaching post for being Jewish and therefore automatically ‘degenerate’. He fled to his native Switzerland but suffered financially from the loss of clients. He had a brief upturn in fortune thanks to new markets in the United States, but died in 1940. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was already ensconced in Switzerland but, suffering from hallucinations and fearing the Germans would come for him, he destroyed all his wood blocks, sculptures and personal documents before killing himself in 1938.

These artists had their works removed from German museums, with many ending up in the notorious Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Shortly after, the Nazis decided to profit from the art they despised by selling it to foreign collectors, with the intention of destroying all that went unsold.  The 1939 auction at the Fischer Galleries in Lucerne attracted worldwide attention but most of the works were sold individually by four collectors, one of whom was Hildebrand Gurlitt.

‘A sense of guilt’

He cannot have been unaware of the suffering around him so why offer his services to a regime which had twice cost him his job? “He was very pragmatic of course,” says Wolfs, “but I still say you can be pragmatic to a certain extent, but after that you have to be aware that what you’re doing is ethically not right.”

If the sale of ‘degenerate art’ could be excused as saving work which would otherwise have been destroyed, as indeed Gurlitt tried to do after the war, exploiting the looted collections of occupied territories was where he moved “from morally muddy waters completely to the dark side,” says Nina Zimmer, Director of The Kunstmuseum in Bern.

When France fell, the Nazis lost little time in tracking down the greatest private collections to furnish Hitler’s fantasy project of The Führermuseum in Linz. “They concentrated on Jewish private collections, amazing collections like the Rothschilds,” says Zimmer. Taking over these art treasures was, for them, “their biggest moral victory,” she adds.

From 1943 Gurlitt was one of the privileged few given a commission to purchase works for the Führermuseum. And it is clear that he also took the opportunity to expand his own collection. One of the most significant finds in the Munich Art Hoard was Seated Woman by Matisse, a work originally owned by the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had been forced to flee Paris.  The work was returned to his heirs in 2015.

Although his collection was initially confiscated by the Allies after the war, Gurlitt was successfully able to argue that he had been a victim of Nazi policies and had in fact managed to save many artworks. With a few exceptions, most were returned to him and he went on to become Director of the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf.

“At the time there were no questions. Before the internet it was much easier to lie and get away with it,” says Zimmer. In 1953 he even loaned some of his works to the German Art Masterpieces of the 20th Century exhibition in Lucerne, organised as counterpoint to the 1939 auction, where he was hailed as a saviour of avant-garde art.

And he could well have been the legal owner of those particular works. The Allies never repealed the laws set in place by the Nazis to allow them to strip the museums, deciding that the Germans were, in effect, robbing themselves.

The works taken from Jewish collectors are a very different matter, as perhaps Cornelius himself finally realised when making his will. It took far too long, but eventually he seems to have felt a sense of guilt, and a responsibility, that Hildebrand Gurlitt never did.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.