A vast trove of modern art seized under Germany’s Nazi regime, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, has been discovered in a Munich apartment among stacks of rotting groceries, German magazine Focus reported.
The 1,500 art works, missing for more than 70 years, and discovered by chance by customs authorities in Bavaria in 2011, could be worth well over €1bn, Focus said.
There was no word on why the find had taken so long to come to light. Bavarian officials declined comment on what could be one of the largest recoveries of Nazi-looted art.
Focus said experts were now valuing the paintings, drawings and prints, being held in a customs depot, and trying to determine their ownership.
Some may once have been on display in German museums, then removed from 1937 onwards because Hitler’s Third Reich considered them “degenerate“, while others were seized, or forcibly sold for a pittance by persecuted Jewish collectors.
The collection was also believed to contain a painting of a woman by Henri Matisse which belonged to Paris-based Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg, Focus said.
One painting is known to have been The Lion Tamer, by German artist Max Beckmann. Cornelius sold it through an auction house for nearly £750,000 (€885,000) shortly before the collection was seized.
Customs investigators made the sensational find in 2011 after a 76-year-old man travelling by train from Zurich to Munich aroused suspicion at the border when he was found carrying a large, albeit legal, amount of cash.
The man was Cornelius Gurlitt, son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was a specialist in the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded un-German. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited him to sell abroad the “degenerate art” to try and generate cash for the state. Gurlitt also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.
After the war he persuaded the Americans that, as he had a Jewish grandmother, he himself had been persecuted. He continued working as a dealer and died in a traffic accident in 1956.
Focus said Cornelius Gurlitt, a recluse, had funded himself by occasionally selling a painting. It printed an image of a painting of horses by German expressionist Franz Marc which it said came from the collection.
Between 1940 and 1944, German forces seized 100,000 paintings, artworks, tapestries and antiques from the homes of Jews in France, stripped of their rights by the racial laws enforced by the collaborationist government.
Thousands of stolen artworks have since been returned to their owners or their descendants, but many more have never resurfaced.
In 2007 a German expert published a book on looted art, estimating that thousands of masterpieces and tens of thousands of lesser works had yet to be restored to their owners.
Only last week, an investigation by Dutch museums revealed that 139 of their artworks, including a Matisse and two Kandinsky paintings, may have been stolen by the Nazis.
Anne Webber, founder and co-chair of the commission for Looted Art in Europe, demanded to know why the 2011 discovery was kept secret until now.
“It’s actually been two and a half years since these paintings were found, and they’ve been kept completely secret. And there are some very hard questions for the Bavarian government about why they’ve kept this list secret.”
“We need to ask why they haven’t published a list of all the paintings that have been found, so that the families who are looking for their paintings — and have been looking for the past 75 years — can find them, and have them returned to them,” she added.
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