In July 1939, the Nazi Party organized an exhibition of "Degenerate Art" in Munich made up of works confiscated from German museums which "insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill." The artists on display included some of the greats of the 20th century: Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and more. As many as 300 of those works, along with pieces by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse, have turned up in the apartment of an 80-year-old man in Schwabing, in northern Munich.
It's believed to be the biggest artistic find since the Second World War, reports The Guardian.
The story was broken over the weekend by a German magazine called Focus, which reported that police searched an apartment belonging to a man named Cornelius Gurlitt in 2011, and found 1,500 works valued at as much as $1.4 billion. Gurlitt is the son of Hildebrandt Gurlitt, a half-Jewish German art collector who was commissioned by the Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to sell off the "degenerate" works. It now appears he kept many of them for himself, although the magazine reports that he'd claimed his collection was destroyed in the 1945 bombing of Dresden. He died in a car crash in 1956.
The authorities only came to discover the massive collection of paintings by a remarkable coincidence, reports Focus. In 2010, customs officials on a train from Zurich to Munich were conducting a routine check on passengers and asked for the papers of Cornelius Gurlitt, who appeared nervous and was carrying €9,000 — just under the limit that must be declared when crossing borders in Europe. Authorities let him go, but followed up when it turned out he'd given them a false address and wasn't registered with the German tax authorities or social services.
German police soon applied for a warrant, and in spring, 2011, they searched his small apartment, finding the enormous cache of paintings behind a large pile of canned food. A customs official was quoted in Focus as saying, "We went into the apartment expecting to find a few thousand undeclared euros, maybe a black bank account. But we were stunned with what we found. From floor to ceiling, from bedroom to bathroom, were piles and piles of old food in tins and old noodles, much of it from the 1980s. And behind it all these pictures. They are worth over a billion euros we are told, but the real worth is inestimable. They are treasures." (The translation is from the Daily Mail.)
The works are now being held in a German customs security facility while a team of experts tries to track down the descendants of the works' rightful owners. One of these is believed to be Anne Sinclair, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg, a French Jewish art dealer who'd given his collection to Gurlitt for safe keeping (Sinclair is a television presenter in France and the U.S., and was married to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician and former head of the International Monetary Fund). Focus reports that if the original owners' heirs are not identified, many of the works may end up being returned to Gurlitt.
Via Daily Mail