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.