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Germany: Greatest Double Robbery in the History of Art?

"I find it shocking they won't list everything they've found." — Lawrence Kaye, Art Lawyer, New York.
Italien, Überführung von Kunstschätzen

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Originally published at Gatestone Institute.

Anger is growing over the way the German government has handled information regarding a secret trove of some 1,400 works of art confiscated or fleeced by the Nazis and discovered in a Munich apartment nearly two years ago.

German prosecutors confirmed on November 4 that they had discovered the trove — by artists including Marc Chagall, Albrecht Dürer, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir — in early 2012 as part a tax-evasion investigation. But they concealed that fact from the public until they were forced to reveal it after the German newsmagazine Focus revealed details about the discovery in an exposé published on November 3.

Jewish groups in Germany and elsewhere, as well as the families of Holocaust survivors seeking to recover looted art, are asking why German authorities allowed two years to pass before disclosing the find, and the U.S. State Department is calling on Germany to return the artworks to their rightful owners.

The art trove — estimated to be worth about €1 billion ($1.35 billion) — was unearthed in a trash-filled apartment of an 80-year-old man named Cornelius Gurlitt. According to Focus magazine, much of the art was bought at a pittance by Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, from Jews fleeing Germany during the Second World War.

The trail leading to the artworks began in September 2010 aboard a German train from Switzerland to Munich. Customs officials carrying out a routine check on passengers asked Cornelius for his papers and became suspicious when they found he was carrying an envelope with €9,000 ($12,000) in cash inside, all in crisp €500 notes.

The amount was within the legal limit of €10,000 for travel within Europe and Cornelius was allowed to go on his way, but the customs officials remained suspicious. In March 2012 (not in 2011, as Focus had originally reported) police conducted a raid on his Munich apartment on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. Once inside the flat, they discovered a stash of 121 framed and 1,285 unframed works of art — sketches, oil paintings, charcoals, lithographs and watercolors — that were professionally stored behind mountains of canned food.

According to Focus magazine, at least 300 pieces in the Gurlitt collection are 20th century modern classics, so-called “degenerate art,” a term used by the Nazi regime to describe virtually all modern art. The trove also includes masterpieces and many previously unknown artworks of “amazing quality.” The oldest painting dates back to the 16th century.

Cornelius inherited the artwork from his father, an art dealer who, in the run-up to the Second World War, had been in charge of confiscating art for the Nazis. Some of the works were seized from museums, while others were stolen or bought at a fraction of their value from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell. The art was often sold outside of Germany in order to raise hard currency for the Nazi regime.

Hildebrand Gurlitt — who evidently kept much of the artwork for himself — was detained and questioned by Americans investigating art looting after the war ended in May 1945. But Gurlitt, who had an apartment in Dresden during the war, told the authorities that his collection had burned in the bombing of that city in February 1945.

Hildebrand Gurlitt died in a car accident in 1956; after the death of his wife, Helene, in 1967, the collection passed on to Cornelius, who — judging by the empty frames found in his house — apparently sold the art one piece at a time to provide himself money on which to live.

In October 2011, for instance, Cornelius sold one painting — The Lion Tamer (Löwenbändiger) by the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann — through the Cologne auction house Lempertz for €864,000 ($1.2 million). A staff member at Lempertz said Cornelius was “friendly and charming” and had told them “his mother had given him the work.” No one, he said, “suspected a thing.”

Officials at the auction house said they were surprised to learn from news reports that Gurlitt was under investigation. “No one from the government ever came to us or alerted us about him. What does it say about the federal prosecutors that they didn’t feel the need to alert the auction houses?” a spokesman said.

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About the Author: The writer is the Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group, one of the oldest and most influential foreign policy think tanks in Spain.


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One Response to “Germany: Greatest Double Robbery in the History of Art?”

  1. In this last two years how artworks were stolen?, from the bavarian authorities.

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