1500 Nazi plundered artworks worth about € 1bn found in a Munich Flat

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) Hitler’s art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt confiscated & amassed over 1500 Nazi plundered artworks and ordered to destroy them in 1945; Hildebrand actually hid them and German authorities confiscated those from his son in 2011. (2) The painting ‘Lion Tamer’ by Max Beckmann was one of the looted art that Cornelius sold (3) Munich apartment where tax officials discovered the artworks.

German tax authorities discovered around 1500 artworks in spring 2011 which were part of Nazi plunder during the 1930s.  Masterpieces by Henri Mattise, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and a dozen other artists were stashed in a shabby flat in Munich. The stunning discovery of the Nazi plunder was revealed to public for the first time on 3rd November 2013 by Germany’s 3rd largest weekly news magazine ‘Focus’. The magazine stated that at least 200 out of the 1500 Nazi plundered arts had been documented as lost since the Nazi days. Britain’s renowned newspaper Daily Mail’s web edition, Mail Online, reported that the customs authority made the discovery while inspecting a man, Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, who was unemployed and with no clear source of income, returning to Germany on a passenger train from Switzerland and found € 9,000 in cash with him.

Cornelius Gurlitt is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a collector and art dealer during the Nazi era who was personally instructed by Joseph Goebbels to gather up for the Nazis the works termed by the Nazis as ‘Degenerate Arts’. Virtually all modern arts were termed as ‘Degenerate’ by the Nazi regime and were banned for being Jewish, un-German, cubist, impressionist or Bolshevist in nature. The looted arts were believed to have been decimated by the Nazis during the WWII. The Nazis also sold some of the confiscated arts to dealers and collectors for a very low price. German Tax authorities issued a warrant to examine his € 500 per month rented apartment in Schwabing, Munich in spring 2011. They discovered the 1500 Nazi plunders, with a current estimated value of $ 1.35 billion or € 1 billion, in the dark premises behind old food tin cans.

In 1945, Hildebrand Gurlitt and his mother were captured and interrogated by U.S. forces and he said that his entire art collection had been destroyed during the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945. During the Nazi regime Hildebrand was excluded from many of his art dealing positions because of his Jewish grandmother. After WWII, he was assessed as a victim of Nazi oppression due to his Jewish ancestry and was released. He continued art dealing until his death in a car accident in 1956. His son Cornelius secretly sold a few arts for a living.

The identification of the Nazi plundered sketches, oil paintings, charcoals, water colors and lithographs have not been publicly disclosed by the investigative authorities, who are trying to return those to their legitimate owners. The painting ‘Lion Tamer’ by Max Beckmann was one of the last arts that Cornelius had sold. It was sold for around £ 750,000 through an auction house shortly before the Nazi plunders were seized in 2011. The seized arts collection is currently kept in a protected Munich warehouse. ‘A portrait of a woman’ by Matisse is said to be among the 200 works for which international warrants are out. French TV presenter Anne Sinclair’s grandfather, Paul Rosenberg was the owner of the art when he was forced to flee to France in 1940.

Art works of Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Ernst Barlach, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Albrecht Durer, Max Liebermann, Edvard Munch and Carl Spitzweg were also discovered in the Munich flat. Hitler and Goebbels ordered confiscation of some 20,000 so called ‘degenerate’ works during the Nazi era.

Hundreds of thousands of Euros were found to have been deposited in bank accounts to Cornelius according to the savings books found by the investigators. The amount is the fruit of his sale of the Nazi plundered artworks. He faces prison for money laundering and tax evasion. But ironically, if the legitimate owners to the paintings are not found then many of the artworks could be returned to him as his father bought many of those with family money.
Video story: British art historian Godfrey Barker talks about the sensational recovery of WWII era art.

Commission for Looted Art in Europe’s spokeswoman, Anne Webber, said that 90% of the Nazi plundered art is still missing. She also said that despite efforts of hundreds of families to trace their looted property, the German authorities were rather slow to trace the origins of those. ‘The authorities did not publish the list’ she said. Webber further added that a network of dealers were laundering the Nazi plundered arts in Germany after the WWII and ‘they still come up at auction in Germany for sale’.

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE