Modernist masterpieces looted by Nazis are found in Munich flat

German police confiscate HK$10 billion worth of modernist masterpieces stolen by the Nazis, in the biggest artistic find of the post-war era

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 10:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 5:24am

German police have confiscated about 1,500 modernist masterpieces thought to have been looted by the Nazis from the flat of an 80-year-old man from Munich, in what is being described as the biggest artistic find of the post-war era.

The artworks, which could be worth as much as €1 billion (HK$10 billion) are said to include pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. They had been considered lost until now, according the German news weekly Focus.

The works, which would originally have been confiscated as "degenerate art" by the Nazis or taken from Jewish collectors in the 1930s and 1940s, had made their way into the hands of a German art collector, Hildebrand Gurlitt. When Gurlitt died, the artworks were passed down to his son, Cornelius - all without the knowledge of the authorities.

Gurlitt attracted the attention of the customs authorities only after a random check during a train journey from Switzerland to Munich in 2010, according to Focus. Further investigations led to a raid on Gurlitt's flat in Schwabing in spring 2011. Police found a vast collection by some of the world's greatest artists.

The artworks are thought to have been stored amid juice cartons and tins of food on homemade shelves in a darkened room. Since their seizure, they have been stored in a safe customs building outside Munich, where the art historian Meike Hoffmann, from Berlin University, has been assessing their precise origin and value.

According to Focus, Cornelius Gurlitt, described as a loner, may have kept himself in funds over the years by occasionally selling the odd artwork. Several frames were empty. He is thought to have sold at least one painting - Lion Tamer by Beckmann - since his flat was raided. On December 2, 2011, the painting was sold for €864,000 at an auction house in Cologne.

At least 300 paintings are thought to belong to a body of about 16,000 works once declared "degenerate art". Others are suspected to have been owned by fleeing Jewish collectors.

One Matisse painting used to belong to a French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, whose granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, a television journalist who is the ex-wife of the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Rosenberg was renowned for representing Picasso, Georges Braque and Matisse.

Sinclair and her family have been campaigning for the return of looted Nazi treasures for years. "We are not willing to forget, or let it go," Marianne Rosenberg, another granddaughter, told The New York Times in April. "I think of it as a crusade."

Gwendolen Webster, an art historian, said the find was "absolutely staggering" but opened a legal can of worms.

One reason why German customs may have been sitting on their find for such a long time is that they can expect a huge number of claims for restitution from around the world. Descendants of Jewish collectors who were blackmailed or robbed of their works by the Nazis may be able to legally claim ownership.

Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had been a museum director in Zwickau until Adolf Hitler came to power, lost his post because he was half Jewish, but was later commissioned by the Nazis to sell works abroad. The discovered loot may show that Gurlitt in fact collected many of the artworks himself and managed to keep them throughout the war.