The Thief of Art – The World’s Biggest Trove of Stolen Antique Art Ever Discovered

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.

Although you are unlikely to stumble across a billion dollars worth of art, if you do have antiques and collectables in your own home and are unsure of their worth, then use Cash in the Attic to get a quick valuation from their team of experts.

Neanderthals – The World’s First Artists

Last year, the world’s oldest cave art was found. Many of you reading this may think that this is all fake, but a team of archaeologists found these paintings in a Spanish cave called El Castillo, meaning ‘castle’ in Spanish, as well as 10 other caves in Northern Spain.

Cave art - 30,000 - 40,000 year old
Cave art – 30,000 – 40,000 year old

Archaeologists believe that these crimson paintings may not have been created by humans, but by Neanderthals. They are thought to have been living in Europe until 30,000 or 40,000 years ago and modern humans arrived around the same time the Neanderthals died out.

Scientists have doubted for a very long time whether Neanderthals were capable of creating symbolic art. But since some new evidence has come to light over the recent years, that opinion had started to change. The evidence that came about last year of patterns of dots, hands and animals were found painted on the cave walls and are now know as the world’s oldest cave art, dating back to more than 40,800 years ago, taking the lead over France’s Chauvet cave paintings believed to be at least 37,000 years old.

Alistair Pike, the study’s lead author and archaeologist at the University of Bristol and his team slowly worked out the dates by using a method that relies on knowing the rates of decay in uranium – specifically in calcium deposits that had formed over the paint. The mineral based paint that was used cannot be dated because it does no contain uranium nor the carbon need for radiocarbon dating.

These findings in Spain are not the first, earlier last year, archaeologists found a 42,000 year old Neanderthal cave painting in Malaga, Spain, but this evidence is controversial according to Pike. Apparently this evidence came about after they dated some charcoal from a fire on the cave floor and then linked the dating to the paintings on the walls.

“All that shows is that someone lit a fire in the cave 42,000 years ago, but they’ve linked it to the paintings. And we think that’s absolutely mad”, said Pike.

Although opinions are changing, Paul Bahn, a cave art expert who is a member of the Archaeological Institute of America said that many scholars still consider Neanderthals to be brutish savages but believes that almost all objective scholars now fully accept Neanderthal art.

Study co-author Joao Zilhao went a step further in suggesting that there is no distinction between Neanderthals and modern humans if they are proven to be responsible for the art. It adds to the evidence that Neanderthals were a European racial variant of Homo sapiens and that they are not a distinct species and the new findings will help narrow the distance between the cultural evolution of Neanderthals and modern humans.

So is this a giant leap for Neanderthal kind? Although most of the paintings were stylistically simple disks and hand stencils, the study team also found figurative art of animals mainly horses and bison, which dates to after the extinction of Neanderthals. Study team member Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, said that it is possible that the dots and any non-figurative arts were created by Neanderthals and the paintings of the animals by Homo sapiens.

I think this is a true and possibly correct statement to make. Maybe Neanderthals did paint the most simplest of art but this lead onto the Homo sapiens creating the images of the animals because they are more developed physically as well as mentally.
The supposed differences between the two races which are now linked with the paintings is the talk of a debate over what it means to be human – or a Homo sapien. There is a theory that it was an acceleration or cultural innovations that allowed humans to move into the territory that was occupied by the Neanderthals. But a question was raised of why this major cultural leap occurred so suddenly.

For modern humans, cave paintings may have been a part of the cultural package alongside musical instruments and sculptures of animals and humans. This research shows that our newly discovered evolutionary relatives, which have been considered as less intelligent than humans, are truly sophisticated thinks which were capable of social planning, symbolism and empathy.

Jess Phillips writes for This is Bingham

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