Billion-euro Munich art haul reveals historical Nazi theft

The 1,500 works found in squalid apartment include pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir

Tue, Nov 5, 2013, 09:51

The beige apartment block in Munich’s upmarket Schwabing neighbourhood was an unremarkable 1960s structure. The apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt was squalid and stuffy, with all but one window shuttered to the outside world.

When the police came calling in 2011, they found the elderly, white-haired man living in darkened rooms, surrounded by rubbish, cartons of fruit juice, tins of sausages and packets of dried dumplings – many dating back to the 1980s.

Amid the chaos, leaning against the walls, stacked on the floor and poking from drawers, were hundreds and hundreds of old sketches, paintings and prints.

They are now believed to include the work of masters such as Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Renoir and Munch.

In other rooms, police found works by German modernists Otto Dix, Franz Marc and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. None of the reported 1,500 works had been seen in public for more than 70 years – all were considered lost in wartime destruction.

As police officers emptied the apartment of the greatest haul of looted art in history – with an estimated value well over €1 billion – Cornelius Gurlitt, now 79, sat impassively in his bedroom.

He had let no one into his apartment for decades in a bid to maintain his secret life of ill-gotten gains. Now it was all over, because of a spot check on a train from Zürich to Munich in 2010.

Money launderers
The EC 197 intercity is a favourite among wealthy German money launderers and thus well-staffed with customs officials with a trained eye. On an evening in September 2010, they noticed, heading to Munich, a 76 year-old who, hours earlier, had travelled in the other direction.

The asked him if he was carrying any money. The man was reportedly nervous, muttered something about an art deal in Basle and, without warning, pulled out an envelope from his jacket pocket containing €9,000 in fresh €500 notes.

Just short of the €10,000 limit for declaring cash, he was allowed to continue his journey. But officials took his name and performed a background check. They found that Cornelius Gurlitt, though he said he lived in Munich, had no official address in the city.

He also had no tax number and no health insurance and had never appeared to have worked. Yet he had a current account in his name containing about €500,000. Where did his money come from?

Researching further, they realised that Cornelius Gurlitt’s father was a famous art dealer in Third Reich Germany.

The events that led them to raid the Munich apartment were set in motion in the Bavarian capital 73 years earlier, on June 29th, 1937. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler met his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for lunch to discuss an exhibition mocking European modern art, in particular from the Weimar period so hated by Hitler, a failed landscape artist.

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