Munich Discovery: Masterpieces Found Among Nazi Art Trove

While searching a Munich apartment, police stumbled upon a historic discovery: nearly 1,500 paintings, including modern art seized by the Nazis and numerous unknown masterpieces by artists such as Picasso, Dix and Matisse.

In a press conference held in Augsburg on Tuesday, authorities provided new details about the paintings discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, which have attracted global attention his week. At the event, Berlin art historian Meike Hoffmann revealed that the collection, which was first reported by the German newsmagazine Focus, includes previously unknown masterpieces, including a self-portrait by Otto Dix and a previously unknown work by Marc Chagall.

The spectacular discovery in the Bavarian capital led authorities to confiscate a total of 1,285 unframed and 121 framed paintings. These include oil paintings and lithographs, as well as drawings and watercolors. Hoffmann said she has seen "absolutely no indications" that they are fakes.

At the press conference, the head of the Munich Customs Investigation Office, Siegfried Klöble, said the search of the apartment was not carried out in 2011, as had previously been believed, but in 2012. The works, he said, were in very good condition and properly stored. He does not expect that there are other works belonging to the collector still missing.

Hoffmann said the collection consists not only of Modernist works, but also of paintings from the 19th century. According to investigators, these include works by Pablo Picasso and Chagall, as well as French masters Auguste Renoir, Gustave Courbet, Henri Matisse, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. German expressionists are also represented, including Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, August Macke, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner. Other works are older, including ones by Canaletto (1697-1768) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Long Road to Discovery

According to the chief prosecutor, the path to the discovery began when a customs official questioned the 76-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt on Sept. 22, 2010, on a high-speed train from Zurich to Munich. Suspicions of tax evasion led authorities to initiate a case and inspect Gurlitt's apartment in Schwabing, a part of Munich, on Feb. 28, 2012. It took three days to properly pack and remove the works, the customs official told reporters.

The German government has known about the Munich discovery for some time. Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said on Monday that Berlin had been "informed about the case for several months."

The presence of works from outside the Modernist period raises new questions about how they came into the Gurlitt family's possession. It had been previously assumed that Hildebrand Gurlitt, the father of Cornelius, had assembled his collection through access to what the Nazis called "degenerate art" -- works deemed offensive by the regime. After the end of the war, Hildebrand Gurlitt claimed his collection had been destroyed during the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. It is unclear, then, how he came into the possession of the Dürer paintings, and this lack of clarity now makes the task of determining the paintings' origins more difficult. Hoffmann expects the investigations into their origins to take a long time.

So far there have been no announcements about the monetary value of the collection, but unofficial estimates have gone as high as €1 billion ($1.35 billion). A full list of the confiscated paintings has not yet been provided. At the press conference, Siegfried Klöble suggested the paintings were not being stored in a depot of the Customs Investigation Office, but in a separate unnamed location. The paintings also cannot be shown online, said chief prosecutor Nemetz, because this could harm the interests of rightful claimants.

Connection to Jewish Art Dealer?

The two heirs of Jewish art collector Alfred Flechtheim have announced, through their lawyer Marcus Stötzel on Tuesday, a desire to investigate whether the collection includes works that once belonged to Flechtheim, whose holdings were dissolved by the Nazis.

Flechtheim's heirs -- Michael Hulton, who lives in the United States, and his stepmother - made reference to the painting "The Lion Tamer" by Max Beckmann. Cornelius Gurlitt had tried to auction it via the Cologne Lempertz auction house in 2011. After the experts there became aware of its origins, they began working towards an agreement between Gurlitt and the Flechtheim heirs.

According to Hulton, they can prove the painting came into Hildebrand Gurlitt's possession in 1934. This contradicts the position of the Bavarian State Art Collection, to which Flechtheim is to have sold his Beckmann works in 1932. The heirs have fought with the collection for years about six Beckmann paintings. If these works were sold after 1933, then they would qualify as works stolen by the Nazi regime and would have to be returned.

tmr -- with wires

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