Cornelius Gurlitt rarely visited the Munich apartment which German customs officials entered two years ago in the hopes of nailing a suspected tax evader.
What they discovered was even rarer: a stash of 1,500 artworks that may be worth 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) if confirmed to be by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Marc Chagall. The works originally may have been seized by the Nazis from German museums and private collectors. They were found amid piles of garbage and outdated food packets, according to a report in Focus magazine.
General Dwight Eisenhower views confiscated art recovered from the Nazi’s after the end of World War II, 1945. Source: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Prosecutors in the city of Augsburg have scheduled a news conference today to discuss the investigation. Representatives of Jewish families, from whom hundreds of thousands of works were stolen, called on the authorities to publish a list as soon as possible to help them identify missing art.
“Without a list, we can’t do anything,” said David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York, who represents the heirs of Curt Glaser, an art critic and collector. “They should put a list on the Internet with photos.”
The drab, beige apartment block at the center of the investigation is about 250 meters (820 feet) from the English Garden, in the affluent northern Munich neighborhood of Schwabing favored by rich intellectuals. Gurlitt is not listed in the Munich telephone directory and prosecutors declined to give his contact details.
“If only we’d known sooner,” said Asma Omar, a 23-year-old student at the school for dietitians opposite the apartment block. “It’s crazy that all this art was right there and we’re here every day. I mean, a billion euros of art with all the history that goes with it? Astonishing.”
Meike Hoffmann, an art historian, is helping prosecutors identify the works, according to Berlin’s Free University, where Hoffmann works at the “Degenerate Art” research unit.
The Nazis seized more than 20,000 modern artworks that they saw as contrary to Aryan ideals from German museums. In 1937, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels staged the exhibition “Degenerate Art,” which first opened in Munich, where it attracted more than 2 million people.
Paintings were hung crowded together, some with no frames, alongside slogans denigrating the artists for “insulting German womanhood” and revealing “sick minds.”
The Nazis auctioned the seized artworks from 1938. The museums which owned the art before World War II have no legal recourse to claim the works because a Nazi law allowing their seizure without compensation has never been repealed.
The Munich apartment is where Gurlitt kept the artworks handed down by his father, Hildebrand, according to Focus. Based in Hamburg before World War II, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), was one of just four art dealers permitted by the Nazi authorities to sell artworks seized as “degenerate” from German museums from the end of 1938 to 1941.
Though they were instructed to sell them abroad for hard currency, the four passed many on to fellow German dealers or kept them for themselves, according to the Free University’s “Degenerate Art” website.
Cornelius Gurlitt was held by officials investigating possible money laundering during a random check on a train from Switzerland to Munich. He was returning from Bern, where he had sold an artwork to the Galerie Kornfeld auction house, Focus said. The auction house denied the transaction.
“The last business and personal contact between Galerie Kornfeld and Cornelius Gurlitt goes back to 1990,” the company said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Gurlitt sold works confiscated during the Third Reich that his father had purchased cheaply in Berlin in 1938, and “whose trade can’t be challenged today,” the auction house said.
“The number of works is overwhelming,” Monika Tatzkow, a provenance researcher and author of several books on Nazi-looted art, said in an interview from Berlin. If confirmed as genuine, “it shows that a lot of time has to pass for some of this art to emerge from shady sources.”
“The federal government is supporting the Augsburg prosecutors with experts in the field of so-called degenerate art,” German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a Berlin news conference. “Of course we can’t comment on the investigation. The government has been kept informed of this case for several months now.”
Hildebrand Gurlitt “is well known as a red-flag name,” said Robert Edsel, whose book “The Monuments Men,” an account of the taskforce assigned to rescue European cultural artifacts during World War II, has been made into a film by George Clooney to be released in February. Edsel spoke by telephone from Dallas yesterday.
“If you see any work of art that he was involved with in terms of provenance, if his name crops up, there’s a high likelihood that it was stolen or that it has come out of one of Germany’s museums as one of the degenerate art pieces,” Edsel said.
Customs authorities in Munich declined to comment on the report, citing confidentiality rules.
“As important a story as this is — why have the Bavarian authorities been sitting on them for two years?” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London-based organization which helps families recover art seized by the Nazis. “Bavaria needs to publish a list of these works as soon as possible.”
The works include a painting entitled “Portrait of a Lady” by Henri Matisse that once belonged to Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg, Focus said.
Rosenberg — whose granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, the journalist and estranged wife of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn — was forced to leave his collection behind when he fled the Nazis, Focus said. Gurlitt kept the artworks and sold some as a source of income over the years, the magazine reported.
Works by Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Liebermann and Albrecht Duerer were also discovered in the raid, it said.
“This is not the end of it,” Edsel said. “As the World War II generation passes over the next five years, we’re going to see more of this stuff coming out: paintings on walls, in attics from World War II veterans of all sides. We’re going to find more of these. I don’t know necessarily of this sort of scale, but we’re going to see more of it.”