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

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

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.

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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.