Hildebrand Gurlitt, a descendent of a Jewish grandmother, was a prominent gallery manager when the Nazi decree of 1933 found Jewish descendents to be unfit to run businesses, and he was relieved of his position. Later building a name for himself as an art dealer, Gurlitt was directly employed by Joseph Goebbels along with three other prominent art dealers with orders to confiscate works of art within German occupied land which Hitler deemed degenerate. Hildebrand was given the authority to seize these works of art from museum walls and Jewish households for the Fuehrermuseum, where the degenerate works were displayed in the Great German Art Exhibition in 1936. The purpose of this exhibition was to show the German people what was acceptable and what was not acceptable in the eyes of the Fuehrer.
Goebbels had another reason for confiscating art works; their significant value and saleability. It was Gurlitt’s job to target prominent Jewish families, including the Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs, Goudstikkers and the Schloss Family because of their extensive and extremely valuable collections of art. Many of these particular works were then sold abroad, usually in Switzerland, for a considerable sum of money, which the Nazis used directly to fund their activities. However, it is clear that as well as handing works over to the Nazis, Gurlitt kept many for himself. He had access to abandoned Jewish residences in France and occupied territory where freely looted as well as buying invaluable works of art from Jews attempting to flee persecution for rock-bottom prices, in exchange for sought-after visas and safe passage across borders. He later sold the works of art privately for vast sums of money.
During the Nazi occupation many priceless works of art by great masters disappeared and although after the war Gurlitt was questioned about his involvement, he maintained that the works he had acquired during the Nazi regime had been lost in a fire. Hildebrand died in a car crash in 1956 and the issue was considered closed. However, a chance encounter with his son Cornelius Gurlitt by officials on a train from Zurich in 2010 proved this was a lie. Further investigation showed he was not registered for tax purposes in Germany. With an unusual amount of cash in hand and possible tax evasion, a raid on his Munich flat in 2012 established that Cornelius had been hiding 1,406 of Nazi-acquired works of art behind a wall of tinned food. Works by Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Monet and Van Gogh have been found, amounting to nearly $1.65 billion worth. It is not yet clear how many of the works, if any, were legitimatlly acquired by Gurlitt and how many were stolen from Jewish owners. As of November 2013, a full investigation continues.