The startling discovery of 21 works of art by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, revealed over the weekend, also surprised officials at Oslo’s Munch Museum. They don’t expect any of the art will make its way to the museum, though, or even to Norway.
The 21 prints and lithographs by Edvard Munch were among a vast collection of around 1,500 pieces of art willed to The Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland. They were found amidst art seized by German authorities in 2012 because it was believed to have been looted by the Nazis before and during World War II.
Most of the art was found in the small Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who helped Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering market and sell “degenerate” art that the Nazis had confiscated from museums and, not least, Jewish families. Hildebrand Gurlitt was captured by occupying US forces after World War II with 20 boxes of art, but argued that the art was part of his personal collection and its records had been destroyed during the war. Since Gurlitt was of Jewish extraction himself, the US authorities let him keep most of it.
The art eventually seems to have passed to his son, Cornelius, who ultimately willed it all to the Bern museum just before he died last spring, as part of a settlement with German authorities aimed at ensuring an investigation into its origins. Magazine Focus has reported that of the estimated 1,500 pieces of art, at least 200 were documented as having been lost since the Nazi era. Some of it is already being returned to past owners who’d searched for specific works for years.
Picasso, Chagall, Matisse… and Munch
Gurlitt’s collection was believed to contain paintings by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse and was valued at at least USD 50 million. The museum revealed more details of the collection over the weekend, and that’s when it emerged that it also contained 21 pieces by Munch, who lived and worked in Germany for many years.
Stein O Henrichsen, director of the Munch Museum, and Audun Eckhoff, director of Norway’s National Museum, told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday that the Bern museum will now try to return the artworks to their rightful owners, or their descendants. The museum stands to inherit works whose former owners can’t be found.
“If these works were taken over by the Nazis, there were probably stolen in Germany and belong to German families or institutions,” Eckhoff told Aftenposten. “It’s improbable that they came from Norwegian families or museums.”
Henrichsen said it was important to find out who owned the art and trace its history. “No one knew what this collection consisted of,” Henrichsen said. “It’s very interesting that it contained 21 works by Munch. We weren’t aware of that.”
The works contain sketches and lithographs by Munch including a version of Melancholy, a drawing of August Strindberg and unique interiors and nudes. Henrichsen wouldn’t speculate on how much the previously unknown works by Munch might be worth. He thinks an important consequence of the discovery, though, can be historic connections to the Munch Museum’s own vast collection of Munch’s art, which the artist willed to the City of Oslo when he died in 1944.
All of the 121 framed and 1,258 unframed artworks at least temporarily in the legal possession of the museum in Bern are believed to have been stored for more than 50 years in Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich. The Bern museum was Gurlitt’s sole heir.