Israeli art expert says Nazi-looted trove in Munich is 'just the tip of the iceberg'

Haaretz 5 November 2013
By Ofer Aderet

German media estimates value of discovered works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and others at $1.4 billion.

A few days after the announcement that an artistic treasure trove had been discovered hidden in an apartment in Germany, the Jewish world and the art world are following the story with great excitement, gleaning every new morsel of information on the subject. Tel Aviv-based attorney Joel Levi, an expert at the restitution of works of art stolen from the Jews by the Nazis during World War II, told Haaretz that "the works that were discovered in Munich are only the tip of the iceberg," and suggested that it may contain thousands of additional works.

At the same time it turned out that hidden in the apartment in Munich were also works of art that were unknown until now, including works by major artists such as Marc Chagall. It was also reported that despite the fact that the apartment where they were kept was squalid, the works were preserved in "very good" condition.

The Jewish community in Germany has demanded an investigation, after it transpired that the German government knew about the paintings but concealed the fact from the public for about two years.

The prosecutor's office in Augsburg, Germany provided the first official information about the affair yesterday. According to its report, in 2012 German customs officials raided the private apartment in Munich and confiscated 1,406 works of art by famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Chagall. Their value was estimated in the German media at about one billion euros.

Some of these works were unknown until now in the art world. Among other things there was a report of an unknown self portrait by German artist Otto Dix and an unknown work by Chagall, one of the most important of the surrealists.

Art historian Meike Hoffmann of Berlin, who is helping the authorities to investigate the story, said that the collection also includes works from the 16th century.

Munich customs director Siegfried Kloeble said that the works are in "very good" condition and estimated that the collection is complete and that no additional works from the collection will be found elsewhere. He said that they are now being stored in a secret hiding place by the German authorities.

The story began on September 22, 2010. Cornelius Gurlitt, a 76-year-old German resident, was stopped for inspection by German customs officials while traveling on an express train from Zurich to Munich. The investigation, on suspicion of tax evasion, led to a raid on his apartment in Munich on February 28, 2012, where the art works were found. The tax authorities said that it took three days to remove them from the apartment.

Gurlitt, today 79, is the son of the famous German art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was active during the Nazi period and died in 1956. Before World War II some of these works were owned by Jews. After the Nazis came to power they were stolen and confiscated, and later they ended up in the hands of Gurlitt's father.

During the time that has passed since the works were discovered − almost two years − the story was kept a secret, far from the public eye, for unknown reasons.

At the same time, the German weekly Focus reported a suspicion that Gurlitt had in his possession additional stolen works, in other places. The Austrian media reported that Gurlitt owns another house in Salzburg, Austria. His apartment in Munich was described in the German media as squalid. The rare paintings were stored there in unsuitable conditions. Gurlitt was described in the German media as ill and a loner.

During World War II about 700,000 works of art were looted from Jews in a systematic and planned Nazi operation, one of whose architects was Hitler's deputy Hermann Goering, an obsessive art collector who stole works from leading museums in Paris, Amsterdam, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Poland. Some ended up in the hands of German art dealers like Gurlitt's father in the 1930s and 1940s. A small percentage of the works were returned to their owners or their heirs after the war, following legal battles.

Levi says that it's hard to estimate what percentage were returned. "In the community of German art dealers there were about 40 people like Gurlitt's father. If each of them had 2,000 works, we get to a huge quantity of paintings that are still hidden all over the world − not only in Germany," he told Haaretz.

The return of the paintings became part of the international public agenda in 1998, in the wake of a gathering of 44 countries in Washington, where it was decided to reach a "just solution" to the question of the stolen art. Since then, various groups the world over have been trying to locate works stolen from private collectors, museums and government authorities, and to restore them to their rightful owners. Such a group is also active in Germany, and maintains a database of works that were stolen − including some 6,000 works that Hitler collected for the museum that he planned to establish in Linz, Austria − and whose owners are looking for them. They have also appointed someone whose job it is to restore the works to their legal heirs.

"He's doing an exemplary job," says Levi, explaining that one day he received a phone call from the man, reporting that he had found a painting in the databases that a client of Levi's is looking for. "Three weeks after I sent him the will, I received the painting from the municipal museum in the city of Darmstadt, Germany, which had received it on loan," recounts Levi.

What will happen to the 1,400 works that were found two years ago in Munich and whose discovery was revealed at the end of the week? Levi estimates that they will be restored to their heirs, if the heirs can be found. "We have light, which could herald the fact that something new is beginning, something is starting to move for families whose father lost everything he owned before committing suicide due to financial pressure from the banks, or being expelled to Auschwitz," he said. "I don't see a situation where even a single one of the 1,400 pictures will remain in German hands."

Levi finds it hard to understand why the German authorities did not report the discovery of the pictures two years ago. "It's a mystery to me, I have no idea what was behind it," he says. "I have no explanation as to why the German investigative authorities are adopting this method of 'Let's wait and see what happens.' I don't understand why it remained in the investigation rooms until it was revealed in the German newspaper."

The chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, has demanded a comprehensive investigation to find out the circumstances of the disappearance and discovery of the works. He says that the story proves that the Holocaust was not only mass murder, but mass robbery as well.
© website copyright Central Registry 2024