The cache of more than 1,400 paintings, lithographs, drawings and prints was seized by authorities investigating Cornelius Gurlitt on suspicion of tax evasion in a three-day operation in March 2012. It includes works by Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Max Liebermann, prosecutors said.
Some works were seized by the Nazis from German museums, while others may have been sold by Jewish owners under duress, said Meike Hoffmann, the investigating art expert. She declined to comment on estimates valuing the stash at 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion). Reinhard Nemetz, the Augsburg chief prosecutor, said authorities won’t publish a list of the art online.
“We would prefer to have people coming to us to tell us which pictures they are missing than making them public and having 10 claimants for each one,” Nemetz said at a news conference today in Augsburg.
The Nazis seized more than 20,000 modern artworks that they saw as “degenerate,” or contrary to Aryan ideals, from German museums. They also stole hundreds of thousands of artworks from Jewish families.
“How are we supposed to know if pictures belonging to our clients are among them if they don’t publish the list?” said Fritz Enderlein, a lawyer representing the heirs of Robert Graetz, a Jewish collector who was murdered at Auschwitz.
The trove also includes a long-lost Courbet painting that was auctioned in 1949 and a Franz Marc landscape with horses, Hoffmann said. A Matisse is known to have been seized in France from the Rosenberg family, she said.
An Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was confiscated from Mannheim by the Nazis, and the trove also includes an Albrecht Duerer engraving and a 16th-century painting, she said. Other artists represented include August Macke, Emil Nolde, Carl Spitzweg and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, prosecutors said.
The Nazis auctioned the “degenerate” artworks they seized from museums starting in 1938. The museums have no legal recourse to claim the works because a Nazi law allowing their seizure without compensation has never been repealed.
“These are not a case for restitution,” Hoffmann said.
Cornelius Gurlitt was held by officials investigating possible money laundering during a random check on a train from Switzerland to Munich on Sept. 22, 2010. That investigation led to his home on Feb. 28, 2012.
The 90-square-meter Munich apartment is where Gurlitt kept the artworks handed down by his father, Hildebrand, according to Focus magazine, which first reported the story. Investigators said the paintings were all in one room, stored correctly in a special-purpose cabinet. Hoffmann said they need cleaning but are otherwise in good condition.
The investigators declined to comment on Focus magazine’s description of piles of garbage and outdated food packets in the apartment. Gurlitt, who reports said is 80, didn’t answer phone calls to his Salzburg home.
Based in Hamburg before World War II, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) was one of just four art dealers permitted by the Nazi authorities to sell artworks seized as “degenerate” from German museums from the end of 1938 to 1941.
Though they were instructed to sell them abroad for hard currency, the four passed many on to fellow German dealers or kept them for themselves, according to the Free University’s “Degenerate Art” website.
Nemetz said prosecutors are investigating whether the works were misappropriated and are considering whether to turn around the burden of proof of ownership because of “inconsistencies in some of the documentation.” He said some documents suggested paintings found in the apartment had been sold.
Authorities are not currently in touch with Gurlitt and he has not been arrested, Nemetz said. The investigations are “legally and factually time-consuming and complex, and are taking time,” he said.