The Nazis plundered many things during their reign in Europe, and art was no exception. According to estimates, no less than 650,000 classic artworks were looted from art galleries, artists and private owners. The Allies discovered most of these artworks stored in more than 1,050 repositories in Germany and Austriawhen Germany lost the war. However, tens of thousands these precious paintings were never found. Pieces of stolen art are recovered from time to time, but what happened earlier this year shook the entire world.
It was the seizure of nearly 1,500 antique paintings worth more than a billion dollars from a reclusive white-haired old man in Munich. The stolen art included masterpieces by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Max Liebermann, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Kirchner, Delacroix, Daumier, and Courbet. The story behind the massive art collection is as intriguing as it is tragic.
The Thief of Art
The high-speed train from Zurich to Munich chiseled through the darkness on a cold September night in 2010. As it made its entry into Germany, some custom officers came on board for a routine check of passengers. The route is notorious because of the transit of illegal money, which is taken back and forth by Germans holding Swiss bank accounts.
Being trained to sniff out suspicious travelers, the officers spotted a white-haired, well-dressed gentleman. Upon inquiry, the old man told the officer that he had been on a visit to an art gallery in Bern. His Austrian passport said his name was Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, born in Hamburg in 1932. The officers could smell something fishy and decided to search him.
The search revealed an envelope containing 9,000 Euros in crisp new bills; however, the amount was within the legal limit, so the officers allowed the man to go, but not before flagging him for further investigation. This is how a dark mystery began to unfold. The events of the subsequent years would open doors to the bitter memories from almost a century ago.
An investigation into Cornelius Gurlitt’s credentials and history intensified the suspicions. He had told the officers he had an apartment in Munich, although he resided in Salzburg. In fact, there was no record of his existence in Germany. No state pension, no health insurance, no employment records, no tax history, no bank accounts— the man was a ghost.
The mystery thickened as the investigators dug deeper. They found out that Cornelius had been living in a million-dollar-plus apartment in an affluent Munich neighborhood for more than 50 years. The “Gurlitt” part of his name held significance for those who knew who knew the name Hildebrand Gurlitt, the quarter Jewish museum-curator and the Nazi’s approved art dealer during the Third Reich, who had reputedly amassed a large collection of “looted” art, bought from Jewish dealers and collectors.
Was there a connection between Hildebrand Gurlitt and Cornelius Gurlitt? Could it be that the reclusive, obscure old man had been living off the sale of antique paintings? The investigators were curious to see the inside of his Munich apartment, but there being no law against owning looted art in Germany, it took them a whole year before they were finally able to obtain a search warrant for Cornelius’ apartment.
Strict private-property-rights and invasion-on-privacy laws kept the authorities hesitating for many more months before the warrants were executed. When Cornelius sold a painting by Max Beckmann titled The Lion Tamer for $ 1.17 million in December 2011, the investigators were curious to see almost 40% of the proceeds going to the heirs of a deceased Jewish art dealer, who had fled Germany to escape persecution by the Nazis in 1933, dying as a pauper in 1937.
Finally, in February 2012, the police and customs officials entering Gurlitt’s apartment were stunned to see a treasure of 121 framed and 1,285 unframed antique paintings. The collection was estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars. Cornelius sat quietly in a corner and watched as all of his prized possessions were packed and taken away to a federal customs warehouse in Garching near Munich. He had been out of touch with the world for decades, having watched his last movie in 1967 and television in 1963. He hardly ever travelled and had a sister who had died of cancer in 2012. The pictures were his whole life. The loss had left him devastated.
As it turned out Cornelius was the third in the Gurlitt legacy. His grandfather was a Baroque art historian who wrote nearly 100 books. His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a museum curator when the Third Reich unleashed its wrath against what was termed “Degenerate Art”. Hundreds of thousands of art pieces were seized from predominantly Jewish families and artists, who were blamed by Hitler and his regime for promoting unhealthy, sick art that conflicted with true German values. Hildebrand had a Jewish grandmother and out of fear for his life, he stuck to safe and traditional art in his gallery at Hamburg. Quietly, though, he was acquiring the forbidden art from Jewish families and artists who were under duress or fleeing the country, and also from art dealers who sold looted Degenerate Art. The paintings were purchased at bargain prices, which was often a small fraction of their actual value.
The German custom authorities kept the investigation and the recovery of stolen art strictly under covers. They knew the discovery would open old wounds, trigger international claims and long ensuing legal proceedings. It remained a secret till November 4, 2013, when Focus, a German news weekly, splashed the story on its front page, compelling the authorities to declare the discovery to the world.
The Focus story sparked an international uproar. The office of Chancellor Angela Merkel was overwhelmed with inquiries and declined to comment on the issue. Germany faced an international image crisis. Survivors of the holocaust were eager to reclaim the artworks that were plundered from their families. The world was demanding that a full inventory of the collection be declared forthwith.
The German government has so far displayed around 450 of the artworks from Cornelius’ collection on the Lost Art Internet Database website. The provenance work is far from done and Cornelius is yet to be charged with an offense, which puts the legality of the seizure in question. In fact, Cornelius’s lawyer has filed an appeal against the confiscation, demanding that the artworks be returned, as they are not relevant to the charge of tax evasion.
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