German customs officials found 1,500 works of Nazi-looted art in an apartment in Munich, Germany two years ago but kept their discovery quiet until now. The news magazine, Focus, reported over the weekend that these works of art were found in the apartment owned by Cornelius Gurlitt, the elderly son of a World War II art dealer. The paintings were seized by the Nazis during the Third Reich’s persecution of the Jews.
Bavarian officials are holding a press conference Tuesday, Nov. 5, regarding the issue. Focus has estimated that the art work is valued over 1 billion euros or $1.35 billion. They are being checked against international provenance databases which will help in determining their last known owner. Some of the paintings were purchased by Gurlitt’s father from German state museums and others were confiscated directly from Jewish collectors.
A spokesman for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Ruediger Mahlo, is insisting that the paintings be returned to the original owners. In many cases, these works represent the last tangible link to a loved one who was killed during the Holocaust.
Germany has been criticized for taking too long in the restitution process of looted art. Art Recovery International spokesman Christopher Marinello told CNN that these paintings should have been listed on the Internet immediately so people could start making claims. To make them wait two years is too long. Since that time, some of the rightful claimants have died and records have been lost.
One of the speakers who is expected at Tuesday’s press conference is art historian Meike Hoffmann. He is with an art institute that specializes in works that were confiscated by the Nazis. The paintings found in Gurlitt’s apartment were considered “degenerate” because they were modern and were by artists who were either not German or were Jewish. Some of the art was by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso.
Focus said German authorities raided the Munich apartment on suspicions of tax evasion. As part of their search, they opened a closet and found paintings and at least one engraving. Since its discovery, it has been kept in storage in a customs facility.
Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was let go from two museum posts he had held in Germany because he was considered a quarter Jewish by the Nuremberg race laws. He was allowed to sell confiscated art based on permission from Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. If art dealers sold to foreign buyers, that meant more money for the Nazis, but there were many cases where sales remained within Germany and the dealers kept the profits. Hildebrand Gurlitt was questioned by American authorities after the war. He reportedly told authorities that his art collection burned in February 1945, when Dresden was bombed.
Since the end of World War II, offices and organizations all over the world are on the lookout for looted art. Databases exist for museums to list any artwork that either doesn’t have the proper paperwork or is questionable in some way. These 1,500 pieces of looted art found in Germany show some progress but there are still thousands of paintings and sculptures that remain missing.
By Cynthia Collins
American Museums Caught in Holocaust Art Restitution Delay