Billion-euro Munich art haul reveals historical Nazi theft
The 1,500 works found in squalid apartment include pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir
She repeated his Dresden story and the trail went cold – until customs investigators, suspicious about Cornelius Gurlitt’s finances, shadowed him for months and eventually raided his apartment.
Among the artworks and squalor they found dozens of empty frames, suggesting the dealer’s son had sold works over the years and lived from the proceeds. In a file they found his mother’s 1960s correspondence insisting everything was burned in Dresden.
These documents could be crucial in the upcoming legal battle over the ownership of the seized art. Many of the works in the Munich cache were reportedly displayed in the Degenerate Art show, but not all works’ provenance can be completely established.
Where no sale agreement can be traced, it is possible that a court would order the artworks returned to Cornelius Gurlitt. Unless, that is, the German authorities use the letters of his late mother to argue that she and her husband lied about the works’ destruction in Dresden and thus forfeited their right to ownership.
Few details have emerged of the individual works recovered from the apartment and now stored in a secret depot in Garching, near Munich. But already the find means hundreds of art history books will have to be rewritten with works, believed lost,now resurrected.
Before the works are seen again in public, however, a long legal battle looms. Though some art was seized by the Nazis, many so-called degenerate works were sold by their collectors to dealers before they fled, and then on to public museums.
Thus these museums may be seen as the ones disappropriated by the Nazis, even if the works had only recently entered their collections. This may be challenged by lawyers for heirs. Under the terms of the 1998 Washington agreement on Nazi-confiscated art, all works sold in the Third Reich is considered a “forced sale”, entitling the heirs to restitution even if the statue of limitations for challenging such sales has passed.
Anticipating a haze of legal claims and counterclaims Bavarian authorities kept the find – made in 2011 – under wraps until now to allow one of Germany’s leading looted art researchers to dig up as much provenance information as possible.
As the provenance investigation continues, German police say their hunt for art stolen by Hildebrand Gurlitt is far from over.
Subsequent to their raid two years ago, Cornelius Gurlitt reportedly sold a supposedly lost work by Max Beckmann, Löwenbändiger, to a Cologne gallery, leading investigators to assume the elderly art dealer’s son has more stolen art secreted away.