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Wolfgang Gurlitt
German art dealer

Wolfgang Gurlitt

Wolfgang Gurlitt
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro German art dealer
Was Art dealer Publisher
From Germany Austria
Field Arts Business Journalism
Gender male
Birth 15 February 1888, Berlin, Germany
Death 26 March 1965, Munich, Upper Bavaria, Bavaria, Germany (aged 77 years)
Father: Fritz Gurlitt
The details (from wikipedia)


Wolfgang Gurlitt (15 February 1888 – 26 March 1965) was a German art dealer and collector, publisher and gallery owner.

Family and friends

He was grandson of the painter Louis Gurlitt, and son of the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt, founder of the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery, which he had taken over in 1907 and reopened after First World War. At the same time he worked as a publisher. A friend of Alfred Kubin and Oskar Kokoschka, he was one of the first gallery owners in Germany to exhibit the work of artists such as Lovis Corinth, Leon Dabo, Henri Matisse and Max Slevogt. Already in the early years of the business he ran into financial difficulties and had to take out loans several times. In 1925 he was unable to repay debts of 50,000 dollars and had instead to hand over artworks which had been offered as collateral for the loans. In 1932 he filed for bankruptcy. Although many customers had lost money and he was unable to pay his debts, in particular his tax liabilities, he continued to work in the art business.

The Berlin Regional Director of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, Artur Schmidt, successfully intervened several times on Gurlitt's behalf and reduced the amount demanded by the creditors, while Gurlitt ran his affairs in the name of his divorced first wife Julia. He also managed to conceal his partial Jewish descent until 1938, while other members of his family had already had to emigrate. In 1940 however the Gestapo were charged with an investigation of his case. In particular his Jewish lover and business partner Lilly Agoston, as well as his earlier business connections, aroused the distrust of the Nazis.

Matisse Exhibition, 1914

In July 1914, Henri Matisse had an exhibition at the Gurlitt gallery, for which Michael and Sarah Stein, Americans living in Paris and brother and sister-in-law of Gertrude Stein, had lent nineteen paintings from their collection. (Flam, 1995, pp. 229). The pictures were lost in the first days of World War I "and subsequently confiscated, or threatened with confiscation", but "they survived intact [even though they] never returned to Paris, resurfacing after complex and protracted negotiations in private hands in Copenhagen (where [many] can be seen today in the Statens Museum for Kunst)." (Spurling, 2003).

The Nazi Era

His role during the Nazi era is difficult to establish. On the one hand he had to live with the suspicions and investigations mentioned, and indeed two colleagues had their businesses closed down. On the other hand, he could continue to operate in the international art trade and was involved in the sales of seized works of "Degenerate art" abroad as well as in the procurement of material for the planned “Führer Museum” in Linz - the latter, however, probably peripheral.

He reaped considerable benefit from the procurement of works of art on behalf the propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels and on the basis of various auctions in the Dorotheum in Vienna it is clear that he was also involved with the sale of expropriated Jewish property.

In 1939 Gurlitt made an offer to the curator of the Basle Museum of Art to put together for him a collection of first-class works from those seized by the Nazis. This trade did not happen however. Instead, through his lover, he acquired for himself several works of art which had been seized from museums, and took a substantial commission for other works which he sold overseas on behalf the government.

In 1940 Gurlitt's ex-wife and his second wife acquired a mansion in Bad Aussee to accommodate the Gurlitt art collection. Again, this action can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand it was clearly a means of ensuring the safety of a substantial private property against the threat of bombing (in 1943 Gurlitt's Berlin home and business premises were actually bombed out), on the other hand this outstorage of the artworks can be seen as a means of protecting them from the Nazis who threatened to destroy 'degenerate' art.

The Postwar Era

After the Second World War Wolfgang Gurlitt remained in Austria - possibly to avoid his past catching up with him. In 1946 he was involved already in negotiations about a gallery of modern art in Linz. A majority of the exhibits were to originate from Gurlitt's collection, with artistic direction being entrusted to Gurlitt himself. There was a provisional opening in 1947, with the actual opening taking place in 1948.

Gurlitt organised exciting exhibitions; first he presented the work of Kubins, and following this a Kokoschka exhibition. In 1952 there was a notable exhibition of graphic art under the motto "No More War!".

Gurlitt also profited in Austria from his skilful dealings with the occupying powers. Already in 1946 he changed citizenship. He received travel and transportation facilities as well as rapid access to his to bank accounts which had at first been closed.

Despite numerous conflicts with the trustees of the museum Gurlitt was by January 1956 director of the new gallery in Linz. Again the outcome was major financial difficulties. This may have been the major reason that the major part of the Gurlitt collection was transferred in 1953 to the city of Linz. However, the provenance of many of the works was uncertain, which made them worth less in the negotiations. Further discrepancies - Gurlitt did not separate his interests as collection director and art dealer clearly enough - finally led to him being asked to resign and his name being removed from the Gallery name (at that time, New Gallery of the City of Linz, Wolfgang Gurlitt Museum). Three years later however he went to court to have the old name restored.

The composer Manfred Gurlitt was his stepbrother, and was a cousin of the musicologist Wilibald Gurlitt.

Secondary sources

  • Flam, Jack, ed., Matisse on Art, Revised edition (Documents of Twentieth-Century Art) University of California Press; Revised edition (July 24, 1995). ISBN 0-520-20032-2. ISBN 978-0-520-20032-6.
  • Spurling, Hillary, "Two for the road: the prolonged and productive rivalry between Matisse and Picasso fills a major chapter in the history of 20th-century modernism," Art in America (Feb. 2003).
  • [1] (“The other Gurlitt”, article by Flavia Foradini, The Art Newspaper, January 2015)
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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