£1bn haul of art treasures seized by Nazis found in squalid Munich flat: 1,500 works by masters such as Picasso, Renoir and Matisse hidden behind tins of noodles, fruit and beans
- More than 1,500 paintings found including pieces by Picasso and Matisse
- Collector Hildebrandt Gurlitt ordered for them to be destroyed in 1945
- But in a routine search on a train from Switzerland to Germany, his son was caught with 9,000 euros cash earned from an illicit art deal
- Officials searched his small rented apartment in Munich and found the art
- Experts claim most were acquired from Jews in exchange for escape
By ALLAN HALL
A remarkable secret trove of paintings worth nearly £1billion, seized by the Nazis in the 1930s and thought to have been destroyed in the war, has been found – hidden behind tins of rotting food in a shabby flat.
The 1,500 works by such masters as Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Chagall were said to have been lost to the flames when Allied aircraft bombed Dresden in 1945.
They had been taken from their owners, many of them Jewish, by the Nazis, who regarded the Impressionist, Cubist and Modernist pieces as ‘degenerate’, and never seen again.
Control: Hitler only liked classical art and held exhibitions of modern 'dissident' pieces to show German people what not to like. Many of those paintings that appeared in those shows have been found in Gurlitt's collection
Their astonishing rediscovery nearly 70 years on in a rundown apartment in Munich came about because of a chance customs inspection of a man returning to Germany by train from Switzerland.
The man turned out to be Cornelius Gurlitt – the reclusive son of Hildebrandt Gurlitt, the art dealer who in the run-up to the Second World War had been in charge of gathering up the so-called degenerate art for the Nazis.
Cornelius was not registered with the German authorities, had never worked and had no apparent source of income, raising suspicions among investigators who then uncovered the art cache hidden behind years-old tins of noodles, beans and fruit in his decrepit flat.
His father had bought for a pittance many of the paintings he seized, and they had passed to his son on his death. Cornelius then quietly sold a few, one at a time, to give him money to live on.
Revealed: The art was discovered in 2011 but kept secret. Today German Focus magazine reported it
The works – sketches, oil paintings, charcoals, lithographs and watercolours – have not been publicly identified by investigators, who are working to reunite them with the families of their rightful owners.
But one painting is known to have been The Lion Tamer, by German artist Max Beckmann. Cornelius sold it through an auction house for nearly £750,000 shortly before the collection was seized.
Another is a portrait of a woman by the French master Matisse that belonged to the Jewish connoisseur Paul Rosenberg.
Rosenberg had to abandon his collection as he fled Paris when France fell to the Nazis in 1940. His granddaughter Anne Sinclair, wife of disgraced former IMF bank chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has been fighting for decades for the return of her grandfather’s pictures, but is said to have not known of the existence of this painting.
Other works discovered in the flat in the Munich suburb of Schwabing are by noted artists such as Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann.
In the words of a spokesman for German customs: ‘This is a sensational find. A true treasure trove. It is an incredible story.’
Collector: Hildebrandt Gurlitt amassed more than 1,500 masterpieces and ordered them to be destroyed in 1945. His son was found on a train with 9,000 euros cash after selling off one of the collection in Switzerland
Holding place: Cornelius Gurlitt, lived off the collection and as a consequence he has managed to survive his entire life without any official bank account, pension or insurance. Pictured: The Munich apartment where officials discovered the hidden paintings
Loot: American soldiers are pictured discovering one of the Nazi's enormous art stash during the war
A story which begins one evening in September 2010 aboard a German Intercity Express train from Zurich in Switzerland to Munich.
THE GREAT NAZI ART ROBBERY: HOW JEWISH DEALERS WERE BRIBED TO SACRIFICE PRECIOUS PAINTINGS FOR A SAFE ESCAPE
Customs officials were carrying out a routine check on passengers – many wealthy Germans deposit money illegally in Switzerland to evade high tax rates at home – and asked for the papers of a white-haired man.
He proffered an Austrian passport in the name of Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, born December 28, 1933, in Hamburg and currently residing in Salzburg.
‘He appeared nervous,’ said customs officials. He said he had travelled to Switzerland for ‘business’ at the Galerie Kornfeld in Bern.
He then he pulled out an envelope with 9,000 euros in 500 euro notes inside – 1,000 euros under the legal limit which must declared to officials when crossing borders in Europe.
Gurlitt was allowed to go on his way, but the officials remained suspicious.
Extensive checks soon disclosed that he did not live in Salzburg but in Schwabing, but he was not registered with the police – mandatory in Germany – the tax authorities or social services. He drew no pension and had no health insurance.
‘He was a man who didn’t exist,’ one official told Germany’s Focus magazine, which broke the story.
Investigators applied for a warrant to search behind the barred windows of his £600-a-month rented flat, eventually entering it in spring 2011.
There they discovered a mountain of tinned and bottled food, long past its sell-by date. Behind the decomposing food were found the missing artworks.
Sold: The Lion Tamer by painter Max Beckmann was one of the paintings in the collection Gurlitt has already sold
Matisse: Art historians are excited about the discovery of a painting by Matisse of a young woman like this
A customs official said: ‘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 [over £850million] we are told, but the real worth is inestimable. They are treasures.’
Treasures they may be, but the provincial-minded Nazi hierarchy despised them and termed them ‘degenerate’.
Hitler liked only romantic paintings that idolised his vision of German supermen. He and his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels ordered the seizure of some 20,000 ‘degenerate’ works by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Dali and Van Gogh.
Potential heir: Anne Sinclair, wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (pictured together) is the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg who is believed to have given his paintings to Gurlitt for a passage to safety
Many were displayed in the Degenerate Art exhibition which opened in Munich in 1937. Tens of thousands of Germans queued up to see exactly what their leaders were telling them not to like.
THE 'DEGENERATE ART' EXHIBITION: HITLER'S LESSON IN TASTE
But in parallel to this exhibition was a behind-the-scenes fleecing of those who owned the paintings, many of them Jewish, who were forced to sell them at rock-bottom prices to art dealers with connections to the Nazi hierarchy in order to purchase expensive exit visas to flee Germany for safer countries.
According to Focus magazine, between 200 and 300 of the Gurlitt collection appeared in the Degenerate Art exhibition and the rest were bought at shamefully low prices from Jews who needed to get out of the country as fast as they could.
Gurlitt is a name well-known to art aficionados, a family which once catered to the elite of the German art collecting scene.
Hildebrandt Gurlitt, Cornelius’s father, was among the most respected art historians in Germany by the time the Nazis came to power in 1933.
He was a champion of modern art – and therefore, initially, hated by the Nazis. He was relieved of museum directorial posts by the regime and persecuted because he had a Jewish grandmother.
But the Nazis needed him because no one had the contacts within Nazi Germany – and outside – that he had with collectors.
Culture: Hitler and Goebbels (far left), here with actress Leni Riefenstahl, amassed large art collections together
He was tasked by Goebbels personally to ‘versilbern’ – turn into cash – the degenerate artworks for the regime.
He did this with some zeal and was rewarded by being offered the future post of director of the super-museum of art that Hitler planned to open in Linz, Austria, where he had once lived.
Hildebrandt Gurlitt acquired ‘hundreds and hundreds’ of artworks at knock-down prices, according to Focus. After the Degenerate Art exhibition, he took control of some of the exhibits too.
At the end of the war Gurlitt claimed that the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 had destroyed his collection at the family home in Kaitzer Strasse.
His Jewish roots and his initial disfavour with Nazism made him, in the eyes of the Allies, a victim not a persecutor and he was never charged with fleecing Jews out of selling their collections for pennies. He carried on dealing in art until 1956 when he was killed in a car crash.
The recovered works are now in a security wing of Bavarian customs near Munich and an art historian is leading a team of experts trying to find the descendants of the rightful owners.
Meanwhile, investigators are said to have found a bank savings book belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt with hundreds of thousands of euros on deposit in it – the fruits of his sale of the artwork over the years. He faces jail for tax evasion and money laundering.
Ironically, however, if the rightful heirs to the paintings are not found – and because his father bought the bulk of them with family money, even at shamefully low prices – then many of them could be returned to Cornelius.
An awesome find - now for the lawsuits
BY ROBIN SIMON, DAILY MAIL ART CRITIC
This is the most significant art find ever to have emerged from the chaos of the Second World War. It is also a big step towards answering the art world’s most nagging question: Where did all the pictures go?
We know that after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the Russians, Americans and British all had sticky fingers when it came to seizing works of art. Individuals and governments alike connived in the removal of numerous pieces from post-war Germany.
But opportunist looting never explained the disappearance of a mass of masterpieces from the so-called ‘Degenerate’ exhibition, let alone the 1,000-plus other pictures acquired – often at knock-down prices from those desperate to escape Nazi persecution – by a collector named Hildebrandt Gurlitt.
Now we know: They were mouldering behind a pile of food in a Munich flat.
The ‘Degenerate’ show was put on by Hitler’s acolytes in 1937 to display the kind of modern art which they insisted showed ‘decadence’ and ‘racial impurity’.
The works in the exhibition had been ripped from the walls of museums across Germany: Now that so many have been recovered, there will surely be a feeding frenzy on an unprecedented scale as the heirs of the original owners, real or imaginary, call in lawyers in an attempt to recover such spectacular treasures.
Who can blame them? A single Picasso can be worth up to £60million. A Matisse £30million.
The list of German painters alone reads like the roll-call of a lost generation.
The list of German painters alone reads like the roll-call of a lost generation.
Precisely because the Nazis condemned their work as degenerate, surviving paintings by such hallowed names as Kirchner, Liebermann and Nolde are rare today, and correspondingly expensive.
Certainly, German collectors will be falling over themselves to buy – if these works are ever put up for sale.
Restitution is already a controversial issue in the art world as families deprived of their inheritance seek redress from private collectors and public museums all over the world whose walls are lined with great paintings acquired in the most dubious of circumstances.
No international exhibition now takes place without elaborate legal agreements, in case any legal heirs turn up to spoil the show, demanding the return of treasures looted during the war.
The current exhibition at Tate Modern of works by Paul Klee, one of the stars of this secret collection in Munich, will be no exception.
Oils by Klee – who was dismissed by the Nazis from his post at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1933 – were fetching £5million as long ago as the late 1980s. Even a tiny watercolour by Klee went for £1million at auction in 2008.
Today, you would have to be very rich indeed to get a sniff of one. Yet claimants to the Klees in Gurlitt’s collection will be hoping to get one for free.
Most of the paintings involved in this find will have been recorded in catalogues and sale records. Most original owners will be identifiable.
But there will be relatively few descendants around to come forward and plead their case.
And if all the heirs fail to materialise, Cornelius Gurlitt, in a bitter twist of fate, could be legally entitled to keep some these paintings - once denigrated as abominations by Hitler, but now declared almost beyond price.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2486251/1bn-haul-art-Picasso-Renoir-Matisse-squalid-Munich-flat.html#ixzz2jlFe3wd4
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