The Indelible Presence of the Gurlitt Estate:
Adam Szymczyk in conversation with Alexander Alberro, Maria Eichhorn, and Hans Haacke

To reiterate the facts about the now well known but as yet unseen Gurlitt estate: it consists of artworks and art objects amassed by the German art historian and dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895–1956), one of four art dealers officially designated to buy and sell art for the profit of the Nazi Reich. After Gurlitt’s death in 1956, and the death of his wife, Helene, in 1968, their son, Cornelius Gurlitt (1932–2014), took over the collection, which then disappeared from public view for more than forty years until it was discovered by police in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment in February 2012. More artworks and objects were subsequently found in another of Gurlitt’s homes, in Salzburg, bringing the known size of the estate to more than 1,500 items.

Some months after the discovery and seizure of the Gurlitt estate was made public by Focus magazine in November 2013, the German government formed an international task force of art historians, lawyers, and representatives of institutions dealing with Nazi-looted art to begin establishing the works’ provenance. A huge public debate has been taking place ever since, in the German and international press and social media as well as in academic circles and political forums. As of this writing, five works out of 1,500 have been turned over to their rightful heirs.

Cornelius Gurlitt died on May 6, 2014. He bequeathed the works in his estate to the Kunstmuseum Bern, which after some deliberations decided to accept the holdings, while also planning to continue necessary provenance research with the German and Bavarian governments. If legal motions initiated by Gurlitt’s family to put into question Cornelius Gurlitt’s testamentary capacity when he wrote his last will should remain fruitless, it seems that the collection is destined to end up divided into a “clean” portion, consisting of works with legally unblemished provenance, which will be transferred to the Kunstmuseum Bern, and a “problem” group that will stay in Germany for further provenance research. The estate will begin to disappear as a cultural and historical entity, as a material embodiment of historical turns, and as a political fact.

The process of cleansing history by breaking down the Gurlitt estate into a number of isolated, dispersed, individual objects—some being returned to private owners, some sent to museums, and others remaining under investigation—could be suspended and exposed through a presentation of the entire estate as part of documenta 14 in 2017. The works could be hosted in Kassel’s Neue Galerie, a museum built in the nineteenth century that is normally dedicated to its own collection and temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. The exhibition would take the form of a material archive or inventory of physical objects in a specially devised display that would underscore their status as evidentiary objects rather than subjects of merely aesthetic contemplation or art-historical interpretation.

Documenta is perhaps the best place to publicly address issues of history and memory through “witnessing objects.” Recall that the inaugural edition of the exhibition, organized by Arnold Bode in 1955, was intended to create a “bridge” between the avant-garde of the pre-Nazi years and the postwar era, bypassing the period of Nazi rule that declared the avant-garde “degenerate art.” Both the content and historical trajectory of the Gurlitt estate would allow a precise probing into that obscure period in between, when many artists were persecuted and their works confiscated or banned from exhibitions. Those were the years when, on the one hand, the regime vilified politically incorrect art, then banned, looted, or physically destroyed it, while, on the other hand, dealers such as Hildebrand Gurlitt were turning state-endorsed destruction into the state’s profit, buying and selling works, often in dubious circumstances. Meanwhile, such operators in the art world were able to build up their own substantial holdings, often—like Gurlitt—switching allegiances and carrying on untroubled after the end of the war.

The following conversation, conducted between May and July 2015, touches on ethical, legal, historical, art-historical, and artistic issues related to the Gurlitt estate, including the implications for the debate on restitution politics that goes beyond the Nazi-looted art. Along with me, the participants included two German artists, Maria Eichhorn and Hans Haacke, who have insistently employed the methodology of provenance research in their investigations, most relevantly by Haacke in his Manet-PROJEKT’74, proposed for and rejected by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and by Eichhorn in her Politics of Restitution at the Lenbachhaus in Munich in 2003. The fourth participant in the discussion was the American art historian Alexander Alberro, who has written extensively on the politics of exhibition display and the mechanisms of repression that bear on the construction of social identity and memory as embodied in works of art.

The indelible presence of the Gurlitt estate in the history of Germany in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is an allegory that awaits conclusion. It is also important to see it as a changing picture of the processes of revealing and concealing truth as they become visible and comprehensible in the history of art.

—Adam Szymczyk

Maria Eichhorn, Restitutionspolitik / Politics of Restitution (2003), detail: front and back of Theodor Leopold Weller, Mädchenbildnis (ca. 1820/25), oil on canvas, 38.7 × 37.5 cm, loan of the Federal Republic of Germany, Kunstbau, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Adam Szymczyk: My proposal, as you all know, is to show the Gurlitt estate in toto at the Neue Galerie as part of documenta 14 in Kassel. While their provenance is being researched, these works, which had been hidden from view in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich and his house in Salzburg, might be publicly exhibited. Taking this step would remove them from obscurity and make them visible for both professionals and the general audience. I believe that bringing this collection to light, as it were, might activate the discursive potential around the case and move forward into a debate, as opposed to simply hindering and cleansing the conversation, as the relevant authorities would insist we do (at least at the moment).

I wonder about each of your specific readings of this collection and case. Do you consider the works in question evidentiary objects, as David Joselit might term them,1 or visual witnesses? Beyond their ability to testify to certain historical dealings and a specific record of criminal events, as well as their providing a legal basis for restitution, what do these objects contribute to our understanding of twentieth-century cultural history? What do they tell us about cultural politics in postwar Germany, continuing through the present?

Maria Eichhorn: I regard the Gurlitt case, which has been receiving a lot of media attention since it came to light, not as an isolated event but as part of a broader problem in postwar Germany. The Gurlitt collection—even before its discovery, in its hidden state—is a matter of public interest. The public interest in its discovery contrasts with the necessity of concealment. It had been kept secret out of fear of discovery,and there must have been several people beyond Gurlitt who were complicit in the covering up. It also has to be assumed that further undiscovered works from the Gurlitt estate exist outside Germany, and that there must be still more such plundered goods hidden within Germany. It seems obvious that there are stolen items in the possession of German families, as well as land and property obtained under duress or illegally.

Plundered objects can be read as meaningful signifiers—in connection with historical, juridical, economic, political, and socio-psychological events—as well as sources of information on the Holocaust, per Raul Hilberg.2 Both past and current events and procedures adhere to these objects. In 2003, when I did my exhibition and research project Politics of Restitution at Lenbachhaus in Munich,3 the remaining stock from Nazi collections found in 1945 by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the American Military Government still comprised around 2,200 works of art and artifacts. A great number of the works that had been secured turned out to be plundered art, predominantly from private Jewish ownership, either in Germany or countries under Nazi occupation. By March 1949, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section had returned 249,683 unlawfully acquired items, with the remainder of the seized goods handed over to the jurisdiction of the German restitution authorities. Many of these so-called state loans, whose status today still remains unconfirmed, are located in the collections of German museums. Fifteen of these state loans, which at that time were located in the collection of the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, were the subject of my research.

Alexander Alberro: The question of whether the artworks in the Gurlitt estate are evidentiary objects or visual witnesses is quite complicated. Certainly, the cluster of art objects stands as visible evidence. It’s evidence on one level of a collection, or “estate” as you have phrased it, which I do believe is the better term. On another level, it at least partly substantiates a crime of enormous proportions. And on yet another level, it’s evidence of a big secret. The secret is of course Cornelius Gurlitt’s, with the stash of artworks that he had kept hidden from view in his various homes for many decades. That the estate has now been exposed makes it a visible secret. But the behavior of the museums and the German state institutions in this case, breaking up the Gurlitt estate into a number of isolated and dispersed clusters and objects, has made the secret one of the German nation at large. What is this larger secret? What is it that is being repressed? Ironically, the more it is repressed, the more it percolates toward the surface.

At the same time, the collection also stands as a visual witness. On the one hand, it witnesses the collecting practices of a particular individual, an art lover who entered into the orbit of the Nazis, as well as the clandestine life of that individual’s son. On the other hand, the estate is at least a partial witness to horrors beyond recognition: the event of the Holocaust. The desperate act of concealment and, more recently, of dispersal in this case appears to be an attempt (whether conscious or unwitting) to avert the demand for recognition made by many who were othered by National Socialist culture in the 1930s and 1940s.

But even more than either evidence or witness, the Gurlitt estate is a perfect example of what psychoanalyst Dori Laub and literary critic Shoshana Felman refer to as “testimony.”4 For Laub, the Holocaust “produced no witnesses.” As he argues in his important essay, “An Event Without a Witness,” “Not only, in effect, did the Nazis try to exterminate the physical witnesses of their crime, but the inherently incomprehensible and deceptive psychological structure of the event of their actions precluded its own witnessing, even by its very victims.”5 Surprisingly, but with a poignancy and coincidental nature that is almost uncanny, the Gurlitt estate operates as a testimony to a radical crisis of a history that nonetheless remains, as such, at once unspeakable and inarticulable—a history that can no longer be accounted for, and formulated in, its own terms.

AS I was quite struck by a recent essay by Claude Lanzmann in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was titled “Das Unnennbare benennen,” or, “To Name the Nameless.”6 The title itself sounded familiar, and when I was looking in the catalogue of the 5th Berlin Biennial [2008], I found an essay Elena Filipovic and I commissioned by Georges Didi-Huberman, titled “Die Namenlosen ausstellen,” which translates to “Expose the Nameless” or “To Exhibit the Nameless.”7 Didi-Huberman’s text opens with the sentence “Peoples [les peoples] are exposed.” The essay rhymes beautifully with Lanzmann’s FAZ article on the disappearance of the witness and material things, the “works” that get, as Lanzmann wrote, “relegated to the heavenly spheres of art.” As he continues:

A contrast between memory and history, between historians and witnesses is created: the witnesses will soon be dead, and all that will remain are the historians as the only foundation of the truth, so it seems. But in the process the works are forgotten, as if they formed an obstacle to history. The historians, at least in part, rid themselves of the works by pointing to the celestial spheres of art. But the true transmission takes place only by way of the works.

Lanzmann also writes about the emergence of history—as a science of professional scrutiny and interpretation of events and documents, deeds, and things—and its gradually taking the place of embodied memory. Which is all just to say that I wonder about the disappearance of witness and the embodied memory in relationship to the Gurlitt estate, or its elimination, as you put it, Alex. When those witnesses of some profound violence have died, can the works that remain—in this case, a collection—stand as a different kind of witness? To what end?

ME Lanzmann emphasizes the necessity of the experience to viewers of his film Shoah [1985]. The film does not attempt to be a history lesson but rather testimony. The stolen works of art and artifacts that had not been returned after the war were not, however, identified as testimony; their status as stolen art was frequently concealed.

The deadlines for lodging restitution claims expired on December 31, 1948, in the American zone, according to Occupation law, and on June 30, 1950, in the British zone and Berlin. In 1949, the collection points were closed and the remaining stocks handed over, initially to the trusteeship of the Bavarian Minister-President, then to the Treuhandverwaltung für Kulturgut [Trusteeship for Cultural Property] in Munich, before they passed in 1963 to the Federal Finance Minister. In November 1965, works from these stocks were put on display for the directors of all interested German museums in an “information show” in Schloss Schleißheim near Munich. Subsequently 582 paintings, 1,289 prints, and 20 tapestries went to the permanent collections of German museums where they remain on display today—as works of art and artifacts, not as testimony.

It was only in 2000 that the Koordinierungsstelle der Länder für Kultur gutverluste [Coordination Office of the Federal States for Restitution of Cultural Objects] set up the Lost Art Internet Database [], which lists all the federal loans in German museums. This fulfilled the state’s duty of complying with the principles of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, in 1998, which obliged participating states to return any cultural assets confiscated under Nazi persecution. The provenance of the Gurlitt estate is currently being researched and the results made accessible online on the Lost Art Internet Database together with excerpts from Gurlitt’s financial ledgers. Germany is obviously striving to behave correctly under the watchful gaze of the international community. Documenta, with its international audience, could provide the appropriate context for presenting the Gurlitt case.

AS Which brings up a question: whereas museums keep their collections to make them public, Cornelius Gurlitt kept the works only for his own enjoyment, thus removing them from any public discourse. What, then, of the question of preservation, which one normally associates with the museum’s role to keep and protect artifacts, but that in this case—and cases like it—has something of the miserly in it?

AA Many collectors keep their cluster of objects for their own pleasure and remove them from public discourse. It seems to me that the more pertinent issue here is that now, when the fact of the many objects in this large, previously hidden collection has been revealed to the public, that very same public is still being denied the ability to contemplate the collection as a whole. I agree with you that it could be very productive to show the entire Gurlitt estate in one place. And documenta, with its early history as a “bridge” from the historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century, over the period of National Socialism, to the return of modern avantgarde art following the war, would be a perfectly logical venue for this archive. On display at documenta, the estate could be contemplated in a variety of ways—cultural, historical, material, political—which would inevitably relate to the initial logic that realized documenta in 1955.

ME Whether privately or publicly owned, when such works go on public display in museums, the respective institution should be immediately obliged to declare the work’s origins. Hitler had assembled, i.e., plundered, a comprehensive collection to furnish an art museum planned for Linz in Austria. This is the source of works hanging on permanent display in museums that are described as being “on loan” or “on loan from the Federal Republic of Germany,” but without any indication whatsoever of their origins in Nazi collections.

Title 18 of the Military Government Regulations stated that all objects acquired by the Nazis within Germany or in occupied territories after January 1933, regardless of whatever considerations may have been involved, were to be regarded as looted art if obtained either a) directly through confiscation, expropriation, or plundering, or b) indirectly through purchase or other transactions. All cultural assets that the Nazis acquired were regarded without exception as stolen, regardless of whether or not contracts of sale had been concluded. The restituted works were initially given to the relevant government, which was to pass the items on to their original owners. Unrestituted works from these stocks can still be found today in the collections of American, Dutch, British, and French museums. In 1997, a number of French museums in Paris, Sèvres, Versailles, and elsewhere—including the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Centre Georges Pompidou—put nine hundred such works on display in an attempt to find their owners.

Maria Eichhorn, Restitutionspolitik / Politics of Restitution (2003), installation view, Kunstbau, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

AS Hans, what does this case conjure or confirm for you considering modes and methodologies that you have developed in your artistic practice? In 1974, you made a series of ten panels that traced the provenance of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus [1880], from Charles Ephrussi, the French-Jewish art historian and collector on whom Proust’s Swann was modeled, to Hermann Josef Abs, a prominent businessman of the Third Reich era, who retained power after World War II and finally donated the painting to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. That work, Manet-PROJEKT'74, was famously declined by the Wallraf-Richartz. What do you think of the way the Gurlitt estate is being handled by the German authorities at present?

Hans Haacke: I was interested in the lives of the owners of the Manet painting, which is perhaps different from research on the provenance of an artwork, which primarily focuses on ownership and its transfer. This interest had been triggered by the sinister role Abs had played during the Nazi period and then, in the late 1960s, as Deutsche Bank’s chairman and also chairman of the board of trustees of the municipal Wallraf-Richartz Museum. Except for Manet and Abs, who had solicited donations from German corporations to acquire Bunch of Asparagus for the museum, everyone featured with biographies in my extended provenance were Jewish. Thus the innocent-looking still life had accumulated a heavy crust of history.

Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT’74 (1974), ten panels in black frames under glass, one color photo reproduction of Manet’s Une botte d’asperges (Bunch of Asparagus) in its museum frame, photo: Rolf Lillig; panels each 80 × 52 cm, Manet reproduction 83 × 93 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Installation Paul Maenz Gallery, Cologne, 1974

The same, of course, would be the case with each work in the Gurlitt collection. As is widely known, Hildebrand Gurlitt had a complex personal history. His grandmother was Jewish. He was an early admirer of what Hitler denounced as “degenerate art” and continued to love such works until the end of his life. That caused him to be fired as the director of a museum in Zwickau, Saxony, and in 1933 to lose his job as head of the Hamburg Kunstverein. He then tried his luck as an art dealer, buying contemporary works from artists directly and from Jewish collectors under duress and selling them, mostly in Switzerland, as well as avant-garde works confiscated by the Nazis from German museums. Toward the end of the war, he even worked for the “Führer Museum” in Linz, procuring classical works from French collections. And then, from 1948 until his death in 1956, he served as director of the Düsseldorf Kunstverein.

By contrast, Cornelius Gurlitt, who inherited his father’s entire collection, was a recluse. Each work in his collection may have a complex legal background and, if researched, would shed light on the complex individual biographies of its former owners—and our collective history. And it would expand our understanding of the sociological implications of art. From afar, it looks as if the relevant German authorities are not in a hurry to investigate or to make known the results of their probing into the provenances of the works in the Gurlitt estate. I am unable to say whether this is due to legitimate legal considerations. Greater “transparency,” however—a popular term of recent vintage—would help improve how the public views the authorities.

AA Hans, you have a long-standing history with the city of Kassel, and even with documenta: you attended the second manifestation of the exhibition, in 1959. Adam has argued that the Gurlitt case provides an oblique link to the period between the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937 and documenta 1 in 1955. These were the years when, on the one hand, the propaganda and apparatus of the National Socialist regime physically destroyed what it considered to be politically incorrect art and, on the other hand, accredited art dealers like Hildebrand Gurlitt were entrusted with turning this state-endorsed destruction into the state’s profit—buying and selling the works of art, often in the most dubious circumstances, while building up their own substantial collections; the Gurlitt estate counts more than 1,500 objects, for example. Do you agree with Adam’s conviction that the Gurlitt estate can function as a necessarily perplexing echo of the initial documenta’s attempt to construct a bridge to modern art?

HH I believe, as your question implies, that the Gurlitt estate needs to be considered in the historical context of the first documenta, which was, indeed, conceived and widely understood in 1955 as an overdue presentation of the art that had been denounced as “degenerate” by the Third Reich. Arnold Bode and Hermann Mattern, friends and colleagues at the Staatliche Werkakademie in Kassel, the art academy they revived in 1947, created the event. Mattern, a landscape architect, had been commissioned to stage the 3rd biennial Bundesgartenschau, or Federal Horticultural Exhibition, in the Karlsaue, the run-down eighteenth-century park of Kassel in the lowland plain near the Fulda River. Kassel had been chosen to host its third edition, financed by the West German government and the state of Hessen, because the city was located in a relatively isolated and depressed region of West Germany, close to the Iron Curtain.

Bode had exhibited his own paintings and had organized exhibitions of contemporary art in Kassel back in the 1920s. He lost a teaching position in Berlin in 1933 due to his noncompliance with the National Socialist art doctrine. Bode creatively recognized that Kassel’s Fridericianum could be a site to display the art he had been associated with and which had not been seen in Germany for nearly a decade. The building was the bombed-out shell of the museum Landgrave Friedrich II of Kassel-Hessen had built in 1779, financed by selling his subjects, the “Hessians,” to fight for the British in the American War of Independence. The 1955 founding of documenta represents the fortunate coming together of economic, political, and cultural interests. It had an extraordinary impact, including its periodic re-edition every four or five years, that reverberates and continues today.

In 1955, I was still in high school, and I did not get to see the first documenta. But the existence of the show, and Bode’s being a professor at the Kassel art academy, together with Fritz Winter—a former Bauhaus student and one of the few abstract painters teaching in German art schools during the immediate postwar period—prompted me, a year later, to apply for admission to the school. I remember Winter telling us how he had to nail his paintings under the rafters of his house in order to hide them from Nazi inquisitors. The academy, at the time housed in former German army barracks in Wilhelmshöhe, was impregnated with the spirit of the former Bauhaus.

These were the circumstances that led me, along with my fellow students, to work installing and guarding the 1959 edition of documenta, which allowed me to witness the goings-on behind the art scene of the time. It was an invaluable education! Missing from the exhibition was art with a recognizable political edge, such as relevant works by Otto Dix, George Grosz, and John Heartfield, who were celebrated a few miles to the East in the GDR and thus became pawns in the Cold War, just as Abstract Expressionism was drafted for the 1959 documenta in the West. It is also noteworthy that Marcel Duchamp and Russian Constructivists were not represented in 1959, probably because they were not part of the canon of Werner Haftmann, the guiding art historian behind the early documentas.

Including the Gurlitt case in the upcoming documenta may introduce or broaden an understanding of the political and racist baggage that haunted this particular period of twentieth-century art, particularly for younger visitors and visitors with no professional art background, as well as for as non-German visitors. Depending on how it is presented, it could also give the uninitiated public an inkling that, no matter whether works prominently reveal such references, social and political implications are not foreign to the art of the past or of the present—nor are censorship, self-censorship, and the pressures and manipulations of the art market.

AS Maria, do you think the finding of the Gurlitt estate has a qualitative or only quantitative importance, and does it make you reconsider your past work on the question of provenance, or shed any new light on it? Do you think the materialistic reading that you have proposed in the past could also be applied here?

ME Yes, I believe so. The forms of display developed for Politics of Restitution, which transform the work of art into a testimonial or analytical object, are not bound to a specific location or a specific collection; rather, they form a model potentially applicable to all unsolved cases. In the exhibition, the pictures were presented individually on freestanding units within the space so that both front and back were visible. The provenance of each painting, and the markings that successive owners had made on the backs of the pictures and on the frames, appeared in summarized form on the displays. They were described and explained as well in the accompanying publication, an integral component of the work, which contains not only extensive provenance research and essays but an appendix in which descriptions of the people and institutions involved can be found. In the Gurlitt case, I see not only the need for a comprehensive cataloguing of all the works and associated ownership issues, as well as their ultimate restitution, but also the necessity of making it all public in the form of an exhibition, placing both the results and the works themselves on display.

Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT’74 (1974). Installation with the original Manet painting in the exhibition Deutschlandbilder, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 1997

AS Alex, in your “Specters of Provenance” essay on Maria’s Politics of Restitution project,8 you begin with a Karl Gutzkow quote, as cited by Freud in “The ‘Uncanny’”: “What do you understand by ‘heimlich’?” “Well, … they are like a buried spring or a dried-up pond. One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again.”9 Further, you note that history “has an uncanny way of returning at the most awkward times, suddenly revealing the deep and often highly repressed secrets of the most upstanding institutions.”10 I wonder if you believe that there is something like a psychoanalytic process for this collection; whether, in fact, this case can be resolved and closed, or whether it should remain open, and that is our duty here?

AA As I noted earlier, the greater the attempt to suppress the objects, the more they rise to the surface and demand to be addressed. Ironically, it is often the case that authoritarian regimes such as the Nazis are more successful in killing people and extinguishing their bodies than in destroying their culture. It is in that sense that the Gurlitt estate, as a whole, is so weird, so uncomfortably strange. For it seems on the one hand so familiar, intimate—cozy, even. We know these artworks; there’s really nothing extraordinary about so many of them. It’s a run-of-the-mill collection put together by an early twentieth-century petit-bourgeois aesthete. But that familiarity is troubled by the very fact that we also know that the estate was hidden away, kept from sight, concealed for many years from the outside, a big secret—a family secret, but perhaps also a secret or intentionally forgotten factum in the postwar art-loving and -dealing milieu in Germany and Switzerland. In that sense, the collection as a whole is what Freud would describe as “uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal … ghastly”—in short, unheimlich, or uncanny. Freud writes, “[The] uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of the old and long familiar”11—to which we could add “incomplete,” “blocked,” and “unprocessed.” And it is this spectral dimension, the estate’s haunted nature, which seems to be most feared by those who desperately want to prevent its presentation at documenta.

AS To what extent, then, do you think that the Gurlitt case can be read as an allegorical story, which is still not ended and tends to regenerate itself?

ME History never ends. As I have already said, I don’t consider Gurlitt to be an isolated case but rather just one element within the complex issue of art looted by the Nazis. This issue includes not only the event itself but also its interpretations. Research takes both primary and secondary literature into account. Walter Benjamin thought of his writings as contributions to discussions with a future impact; that is, as being allegorical. Following this line of thinking, you could claim that, to a certain extent, history occurs in the future. In this sense, history never ceases to relate to past narratives, to update and regenerate them, also producing ambiguities and contradictions. The sensationalizing of the Gurlitt case has reached such a degree that it threatens a qualitative change, reversal, or dilution of the core issue—illegitimately acquired or plundered art. To counteract this entropy of meaning, the strategies of concealment and obfuscation need to be examined and processes of disclosure set in motion by artistic means, which would expose latent conflicts and initiate a parsing of meaning of items in the Gurlitt estate.

AA I agree with Maria that the Gurlitt case reads remarkably well as an allegorical story. Like an allegory, which enables complex or abstract historical processes to take on a concrete narrative form, the Gurlitt affair offers a figuration of the crisis of culture in the period of National Socialism that cannot be articulated in a more proper conceptual or theoretical language. It also seems to effectively condense different historical levels and conflicts into a single figure, the estate as a whole, which enables a kind of relational thinking that’s not as readily available in other forms of expression. Moreover, as an allegorical representation, the Gurlitt case has the additional virtue of indirection, which will allow some people to deal with materials that would be too disturbing if tackled head on. Finally, insofar as allegories are fundamentally narrative in form, transforming antinomies into contradictions, the Gurlitt estate allows us to begin to work through, at least on the level of the imaginary, the very historical crises and blockages that haunt some of the artworks that comprise it.

HH As I hinted earlier, however, it should not lead us to think that it is only a problem of the past, even though this particular case is, presumably, soon to be a closed chapter. Political manipulations, exploitation, and the suppression of art are alive and well today—globally.

AS To that end, do you think the debate around the Gurlitt estate could prompt questions regarding the issue of material and symbolic restitution of cultural goods in general, not only those looted during the Nazi rule? Recently we have heard many nations or individuals pointing to the necessity of returning works of art and traditional objects and artifacts to their rightful owners, bringing them “home.” The discussion ranges from the heads of Maori people kept as ethnographic items in French ethnographic collections to Nazi-looted Cycladic figurines recently returned to a Greek museum by the state of Baden-Württemberg; that is, it concerns both the nineteenth-century troves of ancient Egyptian and Greek art acquired by travelers or taken home as trophies by victorious armies, and artifacts looted by Europeans in their former colonies. This is not to make relative the atrocity of the politics of dispossessing the Jews and other “undesirable elements” in the Third Reich, which was, as we know well, systematic and efficient, but to say, rather, that in recent years we have witnessed the rising voice of peoples around the globe who were economically exploited, physically exterminated, and robbed of their cultural possessions by European powers. In my view, the Gurlitt estate could help open up the discussion about cultural dispossession in general.

ME First, as you say, Adam, Nazi rule was without parallel—I would like to underscore this fact and the specificity of its historical experience. Édouard Glissant wrote about the interplay of colonialism and the writing of history in his famous essay “The Quarrel with History.” In it, he notes that “‘History (with a capital H) ends where the histories of those peoples once reputed to be without history come together.’ History is a highly functional fantasy of the West, originating at precisely the time when it alone ‘made’ the history of the world.”12 Non-European cultures’ liberation of themselves from centuries-old oppression, as discussed in postcolonial theory, encompasses not only a performative notion of history and subaltern narrative but also a discourse addressing the restitution of stolen and displaced artifacts from former Western colonies. The new aspect to all this, in the wake of the reception of Glissant, is the conclusion that the writing of history should not be left entirely to historians; instead, a hegemonic culture of experts should be countered by a diversity of alternative historiographic, artistic, and theoretical practices.

That a discussion around such issues be held in Germany, within the context of documenta, makes sense. Because, instead of the nation’s facing up to its past as a colonial power in Africa and providing reappraisals and reparations, political debates in Germany are currently being determined by asylum issues and a resistance to migration.

HH Looting and the destruction of cultural treasures have occurred, of course, throughout history. All over the world, the victors of secular as much as religious wars, conquerors, potentates, and colonial powers, have plundered and destroyed in ways that they thought would make their victory complete and humiliate the weak and defeated. Some
looted treasures are now in the collections of major cultural institutions around the world—and are relatively safe, even though caretaking did not motivate the original “exporters.” Vandalism and robbery continue at present, and illegally acquired objects are briskly traded on the international black market for art.

One might be tempted to shrug one’s shoulders and mutter: “That’s life. What else is new?” But resignation risks undermining efforts to prevent such destruction and the trading of stolen goods. While focusing on Gurlitt’s role before, during, and after the Third Reich, this case could open up a larger discussion, extending well beyond this particular case and include events we are witnessing today.

Édouard Manet, Une botte d’asperges (1880), oil on canvas, 46.6 × 55 cm. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT’74 (1974), detail

AA The fact that the Holocaust is such a unique and enormous crime might well make it the one that brings attention to other crimes, including cultural dispossession in general. So I don’t think that it’s that much of a leap from the debate surrounding the Gurlitt estate, especially as it concerns restitution, to questions related to the more widespread issue of material and symbolic restitution of cultural goods. That the restitution of cultural objects is a hot-button issue in our time is evidenced by the development of the notion of a “universal museum,” articulated in the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” drafted in Munich in 2002 and signed by the directors of nineteen major Western institutions. “Today,” the text explains, “we are especially sensitive to the subject of a work’s original context, but we should not lose sight of the fact that museums too provide a valid and valuable context for objects. … Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. Each object contributes to that process.”13 A lot could be said about this text, and there’s a lot more to it than I’ve just quoted. But for the moment let me emphasize the way it seeks to provide a semiautonomy to museums, articulating them as sites with their own “valid and valuable” logics and interests, which in some cases might be distinct from the logics and interests that might have once pertained to a particular art object, or collection of art objects.

When it comes to the works in the Gurlitt estate, that difference in logics and interests might very well come down to, on the one hand, the convenient wish of the potential exhibiting institutions in question to show the collection as divided—between the works with clear and unclear provenance, and then also according to some art-historical, stylistic, and quality criteria—and, on the other hand, your perfectly reasonable conclusion that the most appropriate way to regard the objects in this collection at this time and under the present circumstances is as ethnological artifacts to be studied within a larger historical narrative. This is at the heart of the conflict or resistance you’re facing, as I see it.

AS It is probably childish and unrealistic, given the current political circumstances, to insist on “everything or nothing” while imagining an exhibition of the Gurlitt estate in Kassel. An idea to show a part or just some samples of the estate seems more realistic, more moderate. Yet I am convinced that there is an important dimension in claiming the whole truth of this estate, including the documents that belong to it. Alexander explained earlier how the redistribution and dispersing of the works constituting the estate—returning them to their former owners or heirs individual and institutional, or their suspension in prolonged legal limbo, similar to that of the “loans of the Federal Republic of Germany” described by Maria—would help conceal or displace the truth of the estate’s long, uninterrupted existence. Could you imagine a more specific political effect that exhibiting and debating the Gurlitt estate could bring about in Germany, as well as in other countries?

HH Even though the Gurlitt case has been covered by the German media, presenting the evidence of the conflicted and compromised behavior of Hildebrand Gurlitt at documenta could make it visceral. But, as you and I noted earlier, in addition to this effect, it could also be presented in a way that non-Germans feel addressed and encouraged to question whether destruction and/or enrichment through unethical trading of artworks is an exclusively German phenomenon. Care needs to be taken, however, that this does not undermine condemnation of the Nazis and their collaborators.

AA I think it’s crucial that the Gurlitt estate be shown in its entirety. It provides a glimpse of the perverse size of the art collection one individual could accumulate in the Nazi-era Germany. It’s stunning to think that there were quite a few others like it, assembled under similar conditions—let’s make no mistake about that. In fact, there may still be others out there. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s only as unlikely as it would have been just a few years ago, before the “discovery” of the Gurlitt estate, for someone to suggest the same thing. Personally, I’m convinced by the very fact of the size of the Gurlitt collection that others must have known about, or at the very least strongly suspected, its existence. Let’s remember that we’re not just talking about a few hundred artworks here. The scale is immense. To break it down into smaller parts is to obscure this fact.

ME For me, documenta belongs—together with numerous other initiatives and institutions—to that core area of civil society in which society’s self-image is produced. Artistic blueprints are able to counter ossified historical images, initiating processes of reinscription. To return to Gurlitt and a possible artistic approach to this issue at documenta: we won’t get any further with the case using traditional hermeneutics’ empathetic methodology. To “open history towards the future,” as Jürgen Habermas understands society-related research (including artistic research), it is necessary to examine the object being considered and analyzed within its own specific historical framework, one that is also embedded in an emancipatory perspective. To forego a dialectic correlation between the present and the past would mean misconstruing the ideological character of language, the medium in which history is administered, as well as its reinforcement of prevailing attitudes. The experience of Nazism is inherent to an examination of the Gurlitt case, as well as the securing of any collection of—and commentary on—knowledge for both the present and future. Artistic practice, as I understand it, is an aesthetic cross- disciplinary working model for such issues.

AS Alexander, what do you think would be the possible means for such a debate to take place for the duration of the documenta 14 exhibition in 2017? That is, what kind of challenge does it represent for professional art historians, including those—like you—dealing primarily with contemporary art and culture? Why should this be a contemporary subject at all?

AA Without losing sight of the particularities of the Gurlitt case, we could see the conversation directed to questions of repatriation, or to those of circulation, and these directions would in turn open up others. Take repatriation, for instance. There are certainly a growing number of requests for repatriation in the contemporary moment. Why is that? Well, on the one hand, it has to do with the fact that, as Hans noted, the illegal traffic in artistic, archaeological, and ethnic objects continues to be rampant, and to address this issue head-on might be a way to begin to arrest it. But repatriation takes us to the role of self-identified “universal” museums and their sometimes dubious means of accumulating their collections. And I’m not just referring to auratic objects such as the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles, the Ethiopian Maqdala treasures, the Benin Bronzes, the statue of Ramses II, the bust of Queen Nefertiti, or the statues of Hatshepsut. Recent repatriation requests list literally thousands of more minor objects that have become the subject of no less passionate claims by smaller nations and ethnic groups for restitution to their places of origin. So I agree with Hans that the Gurlitt case could open up a larger discussion and include a wide array of other events and issues that we are witnessing and debating today. If the Gurlitt case has an immediate implication, it might well lie in the way it influences the adjudication of—and introspection around—these claims.

Cover of the guide to the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), traveling from Munich to various German cities, 1937–41.

Cover of a leaflet for the first documenta, Kassel, 1955

Entrance ticket for the exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) in Berlin, 1938

Entrance ticket for the first documenta, Kassel, 1955

1 David Joselit, “Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner,” Artforum 53, no. 6 (February 2015).

2 See Raul Hilberg, Sources of Holocaust Research: An Analysis (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001).

3 For more information, see Maria Eichhorn, Restitutionspolitik/Politics of Restitution, exh. cat. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus (Cologne: Walther König, 2004).

4 See Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

5 Dori Laub, “An Event without a Witness,” in Felman and Laub, Testimony, p. 80.

6 Claude Lanzmann, “Das Unnennbare benennen,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 27, 2015. Online:

7 Georges Didi-Huberman, “Die Namenlosen ausstellen,” in When Things Cast No Shadow: 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, ed. Elena Filipovic and Adam Szymczyk (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2008), pp. 543–52.

8 Lanzmann, “Das Unnennbare benennen.”

9 Sigmund Freud, “‘The Uncanny’” (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), p. 223. Freud is here quoting a passage by Karl Gutzkow cited in Daniel Sanders’s Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1860), p. 729.

10 Alexander Alberro, “Specters of Provenance: National Loans, the Königsplatz, and Maria Eichhorn’s ‘Politics of Restitution,’” Grey Room 18 (Winter 2004), p. 65.

11 Freud, “The Uncanny,” p. 224.

12 Édouard Glissant, “The Quarrel with History” (1976), in Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), p. 64.

13 “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” (2002). Online: Signed by the Directors of the Art Institute of Chicago; Bavarian State Museum, Munich (Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek); State Museums, Berlin; Cleveland Museum of Art; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Louvre Museum, Paris; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Prado Museum, Madrid; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the British Museum, London.