On February 28, 2012, German customs officials and police armed with a search warrant raided the darkened Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt as part of a tax evasion investigation. What the authorities unearthed inside the elderly recluse’s squalid residence, however, was shocking and is only now coming to light.
The drab, nondescript exterior of Gurlitt’s Munich apartment block gave no hint of the treasures hidden inside. Amid piles of garbage and expired food in the vacant apartment, German authorities discovered a trove of nearly 1,400 priceless and wholly unknown artworks by some of the 20th century’s greatest masters that were confiscated by the Nazis.
The stash, valued by investigators at $1.35 billion, included 121 framed pieces stacked on a shelf and 1,258 unframed works piled in drawers. The find, kept secret for a year-and-a-half by authorities and first reported this past weekend by German newsmagazine Focus, included works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and previously unknown pieces by Marc Chagall, Otto Dix and Henri Matisse. The oldest of the pieces, including an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, date from the 1500s.
Meike Hoffmann, an art historian at Berlin’s Free University who is assisting with the investigation, told reporters at a news conference that the pieces, although dirty, were undamaged. “The pictures are of exceptional quality and have very special value for art experts,” said Hoffmann, who added that she believes all the pieces to be genuine.
Investigators said they have “concrete evidence” that at least a portion of the collection found inside Gurlitt’s apartment had been taken or extorted from Jewish owners and seized from German museums during Nazi rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was a wartime art dealer who passed away in 1956. Although the Nazis had dismissed the elder Gurlitt, who was a quarter-Jewish, from two museum posts, he was one of only four art dealers commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to sell confiscated artworks to foreign buyers. The Third Reich gave instructions to only sell pieces outside the country, but art historians have discovered that the dealers also sold to German buyers and kept pieces for themselves. When American troops investigating the Nazi looting of artworks interrogated Hildebrand Gurlitt in May 1945, the German dealer lied and said that his collection had been destroyed when the Allies bombed his home in Dresden earlier in the year.
The collection found in the Munich apartment includes pieces that the Nazis considered “degenerate art,” mostly modern or abstract works that the Third Reich believed were contrary to Aryan ideals, painted by Jewish hands or had the potential to have a corrupting influence on the country. The Nazis seized “degenerate art” from public museums and private collectors, and in 1937 Goebbels staged an exhibition of 650 such paintings, sculptures and prints in Munich, where it attracted more than two million people, including Adolf Hitler himself. Following the exhibition, the “corruptive” artworks were destroyed or given to dealers such as Hildebrand Gurlitt to be sold.
Although head prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said authorities are still investigating to see if any offense had been committed, he told reporters, “We don’t have any strong suspicion of a crime that would justify an arrest.” The German investigators said they are even unaware of 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt’s current whereabouts.
Authorities did not disclose the current location of the collection, although Focus reports it has been taken to a secure customs facility warehouse near Munich for storage. Investigators stressed that the legal issues surrounding the case are complex, and Hoffmann said the effort to substantiate the origin of the works could take years. Determining whether paintings had been looted or subject to a forced sale would dictate what could be done with them in the future.
Although the Allied servicemen and civilians who worked as part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program—also known as the “Monuments Men”—rescued and recovered thousands of artworks systematically plundered by the Nazi regime across Europe, the whereabouts of over 16,000 pieces of modern art seized by Hitler’s forces are still unknown, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. German authorities said they thought it was unlikely that Gurlitt had stashed art at other locations.
Even though Gurlitt sold pieces from the collection over the decades since his father’s death, authorities confirm that the remaining collection is one of the largest discoveries of vanished art in decades. “This is the biggest find I have ever seen,” Hoffman said.