A revered Buddhist monk long ago was asked what he would most regret about dying. After some thought, he answered he would miss watching clouds drift across the sky. His reply struck me as profound, nothing I might have said, though I have an answer if I am ever asked the question. I would miss my art collection.
I don’t own the works of anyone famous, but I value my pieces and think of them as family. What troubles me is that when I die, the collection will be scattered, a few of them, perhaps, left to gather dust in a second hand shop.
Of all the inanimate objects in this world, I consider art to be the closest to possessing life. If it is done well, it inspires thought, provokes passion and teaches.
Feeling as I do about its power, I was drawn to a story in the April edition of Vanity Fair. It was about the life of Rolf Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Jewish art dealer who during World War II found himself in a bizarre position, serving as curator for Adolph Hitler’s collection of “Degenerate Art.” (“The Devil and the Art Dealer,” by Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, 4/2013 pgs. 171-186.)
The rights and wrongs of what a man like Hildebrand Gurlitt did is the subject of Robert Edsel’s, The Monuments Men and the film by the same title. But the son’s life, rather than the father’s, interested me most because, upon the death of Gurlitt senior, Rolf Cornelius became caretaker for some of the greatest paintings completed in modern times. He took his charge seriously, living over 50 years in a way that would attract little attention either to himself or the art work. His family deceased, he stayed in his apartment, read the paper, listened to the radio but never watched television. The last film he saw was in 1967. (Ibid, p.182.) He didn’t need entertainment. He had his paintings and he loved them to such a degrees that when he and his trove of “Degenerate Art” was discovered and the paintings confiscated, Cornelius admitted that he grieved for their loss more than for the loss of his parents and his sister. (Ibid pg 185)
Whether or not his “family” of treasures will be returned to him is in question. The statute of limitations has run out under German law but the taint of these painting, acquired under dubious circumstances by Rolf Cornelius’ father, hangs over them like a pall. There will be lawsuits filed by the families of the previous owners to be sure.
Whether the claimant’s legal arguments will succeed is unknown. Only this is certain: for the love of his “family,” Rolf Cornelius Gurlitt gave up having a life of his own. Of him Shakespeare might well have written, “He lov’d not wisely, but too well.” (Othello, V, ii.)
(Rolf Cornelius Gurlitt courtesy of wn.com)