The art historian, curator, and art critic Curt Glaser (1879–1943) was a central figure in Berlin’s art scene in the 1910s and 1920s, yet he has been nearly forgotten in the years since his death. The biography of this champion of modern art was caught up in the cataclysms of the twentieth century. He and his wife Elsa assembled a private collection that included outstanding works by Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, and Max Beckmann, among others. Persecuted by the Nazis for his Jewish background, he lost his position as director of the Berlin Kunstbibliothek and emigrated to Switzerland in 1933, moving to the United States in 1941. When Glaser had most of his collection auctioned in 1933, it was scattered across the globe.
In the same year, the Kunstmuseum Basel acquired two hundred prints and drawings from the collection. In 2020 the museum reached a just and fair solution with Glaser’s heirs to retain the works. Internationally, this has since been deemed best practice. This exhibition links Curt Glaser’s life and work with impressive pieces that are being shown together again for the first time since they were dispersed in 1933. By bringing a fascinating collection back to life and examining Glaser’s broad impact on the art world in Weimar-era Berlin, the show illuminates a hitherto little-known chapter in the history of Modernism.
In Nazi Germany (1933–1945), “degenerate” art was the label for art that did not fit the Nazis’ worldview, including Expressionism, Dadaism, the New Objectivity, Surrealism, Cubism, and Fauvism. In particular, the Nazis loathed works by Jewish artists and works on Jewish or political themes. This art was removed from German museums in 1937—all in all, more than 21,000 objects were seized by the authorities. Many of them were presented in the exhibition “Degenerate Art,” which traveled throughout Germany.
The “Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art” went into force in Germany in 1938. It gave the authorities power over the works seized as “degenerate” art in 1937. An inventory was drawn up and the works were divided into various groups. Around 780 paintings and sculptures and 3500 works on paper were set aside as “internationally marketable,” which is to say, they seemed suitable for sale abroad in order to raise funds in foreign currencies. In reality, the authorities sold almost twice as many works. 125 of them were auctioned off by Theodor Fischer in Lucerne in 1939; the others were sold on the international market through selected art dealers. Much of the “unsalable” rest was burnt in Berlin on March 20, 1939.
Provenance research undertaken at museums investigates the origins and histories of works of art and cultural assets. The looting of art in Nazi-ruled Europe presents a particular challenge for provenance researchers. At a conference held in Washington in 1998, forty-four countries, including Switzerland, adopted eleven basic rules, known as the Washington Principles. They are meant to help resolve open questions relating to Nazi-looted art. Museums are urged to review their collections, fill in gaps in the histories of the works, and identify wrongful changes of ownership. When necessary, the museums are to initiate steps to return (restitute) the works in question to the rightful owners or seek another form of “just and fair solution.”
For valid claims, the goal of the 1998 Washington Principles mentioned under Provenance research is to find « just and fair solutions » regarding Nazi-looted art between former owners and the works’ current holder. Any such solution must be based on a careful assessment of the individual circumstances. In practice, this means that giving the object in question back to the people who claim ownership is not the only possible response. For example, an institution may return a work and then buy it back. Or it can offer financial compensation to the claimants. No less important are symbolic gestures, such as commemorating former owners and sharing a work’s history with the public.
Under the Nazis, a great many works of art were taken from private owners in Germany and the countries annexed or occupied by Germany. They belonged to Jews or people who were persecuted for a number of other reasons. The authorities simply seized the works or forced the owners to sell them. The “looting” was in fact supported by a wide range of legislation and carried out and assisted by various government agencies and institutions set up specifically for this purpose. In 1945, it was categorized as a crime against humanity.
In contrast with looted art, “flight assets” means works of art that owners who were persecuted by the Nazis managed to bring to a comparatively safe country such as Switzerland and then sold there. Unlike with looted art, the owners sometimes got market-based prices for their art and were free to do with the money as they pleased. Still, these sales were ultimately prompted by the same Nazi policies of persecution, expropriation, and looting.
This glossary is meant to explain key concepts in the simplest possible terms. It does not fully cover the subjects in question.