Details are slowly emerging regarding the discovery in Munich some two years ago of an extraordinary cache of art with a Nazi era provenance.
Already, though, a debate has started as to
what its legal status may be, with opinion veering between Nazi
loot and the legitimate property of the man in whose apartment it
The revelation that 1406 drawings, prints,
watercolours and oils with a provisional valuation of close to €1bn
now reside in a suburban customs warehouse promises to provoke a
flood of restitution claims.
The trail began in September 2010 when a
cross-border customs sweep of a train from Switzerland to German
found 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt carrying large quantities of
cash. When tax authorities went to his unassuming flat in the
Schwabing neighbourhood of Munich they discovered pictures by
artists including Kirchner, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso,
Toulouse-Lautrec, Courbet and Canaletto behind shelves of
Mr Gurlitt is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt,
an art dealer and former director of the museum in Zwickau (he left
the post in 1933 because he was half Jewish) who was given the task
of selling 'degenerate art' from German museums for hard currency
abroad. He also bought many works from private owners until the end
of the war.
Sale of Works
It seems that his son survived for the next
60 years by selling off some of the works as a means of support.
Only weeks prior to the seizure of the collection, Cologne auction
house Lempertz had sold Lion Tamer, Circus, a gouache by
Max Beckmann (a picture once owned by the Jewish art dealer and
collector Alfred Flechtheim, but not one on the Art Loss Register's
list of Nazi-looted work) for €864,000.
Gurlitt, who had no declared income but more
than €500,000 in bank accounts, has been charged with tax evasion
The issue of ownership promises to be
extremely complex. While at least 200 pieces are thought to be on
lists of pictures missing since the Second World War (a portrait of
a lady by Matisse once belonged to the dealer Paul Rosenburg),
others may have been acquired legitimately by Hildebrand Gurlitt.
At least some of Gurlitt's pictures were confiscated by the Allies
after World War Two, but later returned to him.
Thus far only snapshots of the contents of the flat have been
published and Jewish groups are among those that have called for
more information to be made public immediately.