‘Degenerate’ art on display: Unknown works by Matisse and Chagall found among €1bn Nazi collection

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As a lengthy legal battle looms for the return of the works to their rightful owners, Jewish groups are asking why the German government didn’t make the find public earlier

Berlin

In the functional surroundings of a state prosecutor’s office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, reporters were allowed a first glimpse of the lost works of celebrated masters such as Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, which have been found in a sensational cache of more than 1,400 pieces of art looted by the Nazis and kept hidden for more than 70 years.

Click here or on 'view gallery' to see more of the seized works

Images of some of the works – which had been stored in the Munich apartment of the 80-year-old son of a famous pre-war art dealer until they were unearthed by customs officers in March last year and made public on Sunday – were exhibited at a press conference on coloured slides.

As a slide of a hitherto unknown self-portrait by the German painter Otto Dix was displayed on a screen, the Berlin art historian Meike Hoffmann told the assembled media: “When you stand before the paintings and see again these long-lost works that were believed destroyed, it is an extraordinarily good feeling. The pictures are of exceptional quality, yet many of them were unknown until now.”

Ms Hoffmann, who is now in charge of finding the original owners of the artworks, said the vast collection also included previously unregistered works by the modernist painters Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann and Henri Matisse, as well as known paintings by Pablo Picasso. Toulouse-Lautrec, Emil Nolde, Canaletto and Gustave Courbet, which had been presumed lost. She said the earliest work dated back to the 16th century.

Reinhard Nemetz, the state prosecutor leading the investigation into the case, said his office had “concrete evidence” that some of the works had been seized by the Nazis from their predominantly Jewish owners, or had been confiscated because they were deemed to be “degenerate art”.

He said the cache was found in the Munich apartment of 80 year-old Cornelius Gurlitt in March last year. Contrary to some reports the paintings were stored in an orderly fashion with framed pictures stacked on shelves as if they were in a museum storeroom, while some 1,285 unframed works were piled in drawers. Customs officials said it took them three days to empty the apartment.

Mr Nemetz said his office has “lost contact” with the reclusive Mr Gurlitt who had hoarded the works for decades. “It is not clear whether any offence had been committed as the legal position is extremely complex. We don’t have a strong suspicion of a crime that would justify an arrest,” he said.

Bavarian customs police first became suspicious of Mr Gurlitt in the summer of 2010 after they carried out a routine search for currency smugglers on a train bound from Switzerland to Munich. Officers found the then 76-year-old carrying €9,000 in an envelope. Although the amount was within legal limits, they monitored his movements. When they finally decided to visit his apartment they stumbled on the huge hoard of paintings.

Customs officials and prosecutors said they were concerned they would be inundated with false claims for the artworks, prompting them to move the paintings to a secret location while they tried to establish who the rightful owners were.

How Mr Gurlitt managed to possess such a vast array of artworks seems clear. His father was Hildebrand Gurlitt, a well-known pre-war art dealer, who, despite his own Jewish heritage, was permitted by the Nazis to sell off confiscated paintings or works that were condemned as “degenerate art” to foreign clients. It is almost certain that Gurlitt senior snapped up many of the paintings from their mainly Jewish owners at knockdown prices. Many of the owners desperately needed the cash to fund their escape from the Holocaust.

Gurlitt senior was killed in a road accident in 1956. Before his death he claimed that most of the collection had been lost in the devastating Allied air raid on Dresden in 1945. He said that he had been persecuted by the Nazis for having a Jewish grandmother.

The Kornfeld Gallery in the Swiss city of Bern, where Cornelius Gurlitt auctioned off works for the equivalent of €31,000 in 1990, said that he had inherited the collection of paintings after the death of his mother Helene in 1967. “Basically this is a case of undeclared inheritance,” the gallery said in a statement.

Yet such an explanation is unlikely to satisfy the relatives of those from whom the works were either confiscated of purchased for a fraction of their real value over 70 years ago. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has admitted that it has known about the collection since last year.

Rüdiger Mahlo, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, fired the opening shots in what promises to be a major and protracted legal battle for the return of the works to their rightful owners. He said he was angered by the fact that it had taken the German authorities so long to reveal the existence of the valuable paintings. “Morally, this case amounts to the continued concealment of stolen goods. It cannot be,” he insisted.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup