BERLIN — An investigation into suspected tax fraud has uncovered a vast trove of artwork seized by the Nazis before World War II and kept behind pallets of canned goods in the Munich apartment of a 79-year-old man whose father was once a dealer in pirated art.
The collection is believed to include works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Marc Chagall, among many others. Estimates of its value top $1.3 billion.
Officials kept the collection’s discovery quiet for two years, uncertain who were the rightful owners of the works and whether a crime had been committed. It finally became public over the weekend, when the German news magazine Focus broke the story.
Prosecutors and the art historian who has been cataloguing the collection refused to discuss details of the case Monday, but said more details would be forthcoming at a news conference scheduled for Tuesday.
The man who’d been in possession of the collection had been supporting himself for decades by occasionally selling a piece.
In all, the collection contains about 1,500 art works. How such a vast collection could remain secret for so long puzzled many in the art world.
“I can only think that we in the art world are too naïve to look for criminality in those dealing in such works of beauty,” said Austrian art expert Gert Kerschbaumer. “There is no other way to explain why this collection, sold a piece here and there, went unnoticed for so long. Unless it was corruption from both art dealers and those in seats of power.”
Determining who has a valid ownership claim to the art is likely to be a complicated and controversial affair.
Some pieces in the collection are thought to have followed the now classic and tragic path of Nazi art plunder: Seized by the Nazis from the private collections of Jewish families and collectors or forced to be sold at bargain prices. The heirs of those former owners would have a claim to the art, if they can be located.
But many others are thought to have come from government-operated German museums. Art dealers and historians note that in such cases, courts have ruled that the Nazi government was within its rights to sell such artwork, leaving the ownership validly in the hands of the people who purchased it or their heirs.
If there is no proof of purchase, though, the original museums have an ownership claim.
Much of the collection is thought to have originally come to Dresden art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt beginning in 1937 through Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, whose so-called “Degenerate Art” program was intended to rid Germany of modern art that the Nazis considered un-German, Jewish, or Bolshevist.
Gurlitt himself had been disgraced and removed from jobs in the art world by the Nazi regime, but the Nazis need someone with connections to dispose of the paintings, about which Goebbels is widely quoted as having said, “We want to try to earn some money with the crap.”
Gurlitt died in 1956. In the 1960s, Gurlitt’s widow was asked whether she knew about several lost pieces known to have been in her late husband’s collection at some point. She said then that everything her husband had owned was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden. Prosecutors say now that that was clearly a lie, and Focus reported they plan to use that fact to claim for Germany the once public parts of the collection.
The collection then passed to their son, Cornelius Gurlitt, who is now 79.
The investigation that uncovered the lost art began with a random spot check by German customs agents as Cornelius Gurlitt returned from Switzerland by train. The agents found that Gurlitt was carrying 9,000 euros in cash – about $12,000 dollars at today’s exchange rate. That sum was within legal limits, but agents were curious and asked Gurlitt why he was carrying so much cash. He told them he had sold a small piece of art in Zurich. Six months later, German authorities raided his apartment and discovered the collection.
The investigation remained secret until Sunday, when the online version of Focus went up. Monday, the publication’s print version devoted its cover and 11 pages to the story.
Uwe Hartmann, who studies artwork ownership issues for Berlin’s state museums, said that when Goebbels did get money by selling public works to private collectors, courts have ruled that the buyers are rightful owners.
“The positive of this case is that there is great joy that what was lost has once again been found,” he said. “The negative is that instead of coming back into the public view, where great art belongs, it could vanish back into private collections. Art collectors can keep works like this in their apartments forever, and there is no hope for the rest of the world to see it unless we can appeal to their sense of responsibility.”
When they raided his apartment, officials expected to find evidence of unclaimed income, Focus said.
What they found instead was a trashy mess and pallets of unopened canned goods. The artwork was behind the canned goods, in stacks. It took officials several days simply to move the artwork to a secure location.
It’s not yet known whether Gurlitt will be charged with a crime. Focus reported that Gurlitt had lived almost entirely off the grid in Germany. He held an Austrian passport and didn’t even have German health insurance.
Only a few specific artworks were identified by the magazine: An Otto Dix self-portrait, works by Emil Nolde, and a Franz Marc painting of blue horses.
In the art world, experts were combing lists of what the Nazis were known to have seized in Germany and making educated guesses.
That art includes a male portrait by Picasso that had been owned by the Provenzial-Museum in Hanover but was seized in July, 1937, under Goebbels’ program. A Free University database lists its location as unknown.
Also thought likely to be among the found painting are a few by Chagall, including one titled “Men with Cow.” Seized in July 1937 from the Essen Folkwang Museum, it was put on display in Hitler’s mocking but wildly popular traveling “Degenerate Art” show. By 1940, it was in the hands of a private art dealer, and its location today is unknown.
The other major artists whose works Focus reported are in the collection include Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann.
McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this story from Berlin.
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