Bavarian police criticised for silence on Munich art find

Investigators have no contact with elderly man who hoarded 1,400 priceless art works for decades

His yellow face half in shadow, a long cigarette smoking from its red tip, Otto Dix rose from the dead yesterday after 44 years in the grave.

A previously unknown self-portrait of the modernist master was revealed yesterday in Germany, one of more than 1,400 works recovered from a squalid Munich apartment.

Art history was rewritten at dizzying speed at a press conference in the Bavarian city of Augsburg yesterday as low-resolution slides of paintings – some considered lost, others unknown – flashed by.

The hoard focuses on early 20th-century European art dubbed "degenerate" and either looted by the Nazis or sold at knockdown prices. It includes the striking Melancholic Girl by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; a Matisse portrait of a woman in a veil and flowery blouse with a fan; blue, curved colts by Franz Marc; horseback riders on a beach by Max Beckmann; and a spacey scene by Marc Chagall.


Other artists represented include Canaletto, Courbet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec – all the way back to Albrecht Dürer.

'Very good condition'
Berlin art historian Meike Hoffmann, charged with examining the find, said that "apart from some dirt" the works were largely in "very good condition".

“It is an unbelievable feeling of happiness when you stand before these works, long vanished or believed destroyed,” she said, adding it would take “years” to complete provenance research.

Augsburg state prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz confirmed the hoard was found by chance, arising from a money laundering spot check on Cornelius Gurlitt, now 79, on a train from Zürich to Munich in September 2010.

After a background check, police raided his squalid Munich apartment in February 2012 – not 2011 as reported by Germany's Focus magazine.

It took three days to remove the 1,400 paintings, sketches and lithographs hoarded by Mr Gurlitt's collector father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was charged to find international buyers for art dubbed "degenerate" by the Nazis.

About 120 works were in frames and stored on a shelf, while the rest were unframed and stacked in drawers. They are now being stored at an undisclosed location.

Bavarian authorities said yesterday they did not know where Mr Gurlitt was now.

“We have no contact,” said Mr Nemetz, adding that they did not have enough information yet for an arrest warrant.

Restitution experts yesterday criticised the Bavarian handling of the case, in particular the 19-month gap between the raid and the press conference.

"It's extraordinary that we're only hearing of this find now," said Peter Schink, a Berlin lawyer specialising in restitution cases. "We have to find a possibility for concerned parties to check if any of the pictures found in Munich were once owned by their families, and to give them a possibility of taking legal action."

He hoped the scale of the Munich find would help tie up loose ends that had prevented the resolution of Nazi art theft cases. “For instance it could encourage centralised provenance research and an agreed standard on rules. Some countries still don’t even have a legal definition of looted art.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin