Max Beckmann’s “The Lion Tamer” sold from the illicit collection for €864,000 at an auction house in Cologne in 2011. (image via artfact.com)

First reported in the German media, news broke yesterday of an estimated €1bn ($1.35bn) of Nazi-seized art uncovered during a raid on an octogenarian’s Munich apartment in 2011. A total of 1,500 works — paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka — are reported to have been stashed in a dark room, sharing space on homemade shelves with “juice cartons and tins of food.”

The octogenarian art hoarder, Cornelius Gurlitt, is believed to have inherited the peerless collection from his father, German art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. That Cornelius kept a meager, shabby profile, described by a German official as “a man who did not exist” may have helped keep the works under wraps, but he made one fatal mistake — traveling with a suspicious amount of cash on a train from Switzerland to Munich: €9,000 now believed to be the result of an art sale.

The money led to the raid on his small apartment, which in turn provoked the art find of the century: the largest art cache recovered in postwar history— the works were thought to have been lost forever. But they survived in Cornelius’s moldy apartment, the upshot of Nazi Germany’s policy of mass seizures of “degenerate art” and other work cadged and stolen from Jewish collectors during the 1930s and ’40s. Over 300 of the works are thought to have come from the 16,000-work catalogue of degenerate art.

The reason news has only now come out of the discovery is due to two years of careful accounting and assessment by German customs and officials. Thousands of works were stolen by the Nazis during the war; many are still sought by surviving families. According to Focus magazine, the German paper that first disclosed news of the find, international warrants have been issued for at least 200 of the works.

Evidently George Clooney’s forthcoming Monuments Men film, a dramatization of this sort of scenario, must have missed a lot.

A son of the Chicago suburbs, Jeremy Polacek has somehow lived in New York City longer than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.

9 replies on “1,500 Works of Nazi-Looted Art Discovered in Munich”

  1. Has anyone seen a comprehensive list of the works in the collection? Focus, where it was first reported, doesn’t seem to have one.

    1. I don’t believe one has been released. In my reading I came upon a reference to an art manifest only through someone calling for it:

      “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.”


      1. That article also mentions a Meikke Hoffman at Berlin Free University working with prosecutors to identify works. I wonder if it is possible that not all of the works have been identified yet. Even with a few interns it would take a long time to identify 1500 works that disappeared prior to the war, prior to modern documentation standards and common color photography. That said, it would be a tragedy if a full manifest never came. It’s really hard to overstate how important this find is.

    2. I feel like we may not get one. If the bulk of the finds get immediately returned to private hands, the old owners may not want that published.

      1. If authorities are seeking individual works they may not want to tip-off anyone in possession of those works by publishing the list. I know, I watch too much TV.

  2. I would also like to see current pictures of “Cornelius’ moldy apartment” to see just how all the ARTworks were stored over all the years that have pasted. This “hoarder” is worthy of a detailed study.

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