Luther Gulick had a sense of humor. That’s evident from his “TOP SECRET” tongue-in-cheek report on looting in liberated 1945 Berlin, part of a more serious manuscript on wartime reparations from Germany.
There were two kinds of looting, Gulick wrote. One by treaty or protocol awarding oneself some coveted trophy; and the second, known as “liberation” by seizing some desired object and absconding with it (or her), declaring, “this, by God is mine.” The legal concept, he said, might be boiled down to the playground chant, “finders keepers.” But Gulick cautioned, “It is generally unwise to take things that leak or stink.”
Joking aside, there’s a puzzling postscript involving Gulick himself and a fairly valuable 1906 painting by the prominent German-Jewish artist Max Liebermann.
One of Liebermann’s most famous oils, “Two Riders on the Beach”, recently turned up in the trove of Nazi-confiscated works found in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of an art dealer, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, who had cultivated Hitler’s henchmen as they stripped Germany and occupied Europe of treasures deemed valuable or degenerate.
Before he died in May 2014, Cornelius bequeathed his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts Bern which pledged to check the provenance of each piece and return any that were stolen to heirs of the rightful owners.
The painting that found its way into Gulick’s hands in the victory summer of 1945 was not one of these. But its travels from the “confiscated” home of a German diplomat to the walls of Gulick’s office in New York — and its whereabouts after a subsequent liquidation sale by the Justice Department’s Office of Alien Property — make for an interesting yarn.
As the tale unfolds, on July 29, 1948, David L. Bazelon, Assistant Attorney General and director of the Office of Alien Property, advises Glick that the office has been informed “that you may be the custodian of an oil painting by Max Liebermann, valued at $2500.00 and owned by Hans von Flotow, a German national…” [The sum would be equivalent to about $25,000 today.]Bazelon goes on to say they were told it was transferred to Gulick “in accordance with a lease agreement executed on Aug. 20, 1945.”
Bazelon reminds Gulick that General Order 34 requires the reporting of all property in the US owned or claimed by former enemy nationals.
Gulick, undoubtedly mortified, submits Form APC-56 identifying von Flotow as a prominent jurist in Berlin and descended from “a noted Prussian family, numbering several artists, professors, professional people and corporation officials.” (Actually, he had also been a German ambassador to Belgium and Italy before WWI and had died in 1947; his WWII record is unclear.) http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_von_Flotow
Gulick describes the painting, showing a man with two horses, as a 1906 “unfinished oil sketch on card” approximately three-feet by two feet, and valued as $500 “plus or minus.”
Gulick also writes Bazelon he was unaware such reports were required and was told “by someone connected with the Treasury, I believe” that the government was not concerned with effects “which did not involve convertible or fiscal assets.” And he goes on to relate the story of how he acquired it:
“This painting is one of a dozen or so left behind when the Russians looted the private art collection of Hans von Flotow in his Berlin home…I had a hunch that the Russians might be back in the US sector of Berlin some time, or that some Americans might get the picture in question, so I offered to take the picture to the US for safe keeping, getting my compensation out of the enjoyment of the picture, until von Flotow wanted it again, after things had quieted down in Germany.”
So far so good. But in an intriguing addendum he seems to have typed in later, Gulick adds: I executed a lease so that I would not be another looter.”
He also takes pains to show why the painting could not be valued at more than $500.
Early in the following year of 1949, her husband having died in October 1947, von Flotow’s widow, Hildegard, writes Gulick to inform him of Hans’s death and her difficult circumstances — the house on Klopstockstrasse in West Berlin had been “confiscated” at the end of 1945, by whom she didn’t say. She reminds Gulick he still has her painting and offers to sell it to him if he can suggest a price. Otherwise, she says, she will decide whether to sell it in America or turn it over to her children in West Germany.
Gulick responds on March 4, 1949 sending condolences and assuring her, “Your painting is in perfect condition and it is hanging on the wall of my office in a fireproof and well protected building.” [684 Park Avenue, at 68th Street] He also supplies a little more history, saying “as required by law, I reported the bringing in of the painting in 1945, but as I came in as an employee of the government, no notice was taken of the statement and no record was made of the report.”
He goes on to tell her of the letter from the Justice Department, saying the government might have learned of it from the filing of her husband’s estate but noting that he had heard nothing further. And alas, he concluded, “my personal status is not such that I can make you a reasonable offer.”
Gulick then contacts the Justice Department again, asking whether the Liebermann could be donated or sold for a nominal price to the Institute of Public Administration.
Sorry, Bazelon tells him on April 25, 1949, “it is important that the Office of Alien Property obtain public bids” and “dispose of it to the highest qualified bidder.”
That, apparently, was done. Who bought Max Liebermann’s man with two horses is, at this writing, unknown. And what happened to the other Liebermanns supposedly looted by the Russians is equally mysterious.