‘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.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
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.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits