The German magazine Focus has just revealed the news of the astonishing discovery of about $1-billion worth of looted art missing since the Nazi era. Although the art was seized almost two years ago, the Focus story apparently represents the first public account of the works' discovery.
The magazine reports that German tax authorities found the art in 2011 after obtaining a search warrant for the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a Munich art dealer.
Some 1,500 artworks were uncovered in the home, many by the likes of Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall. An estimated 300 of the works are known to be missing and under international warrants.
Previously Gurlitt had not been on the police radar. But, according to Focus Magazine, he attracted their attention after a random cash check during a train journey from Switzerland to Munich in 2010. He was on a train from Switzerland with 9,000 Euros and empty envelopes on hand.
Further police investigations led to a raid on Gurlitt's flat in Schwabing in spring 2011 where police discovered the masterpieces.
The Nazis seized over 16,000 artworks, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Artwork was confiscated for being "degenerate" and re-sold at below market prices. Jewish art dealers and collectors were also forced to sell works at auction, or hurriedly sold art for prices far below value before they fled the country. Other works were simply stolen during the wartime chaos.
Currently the artwork is being stored in a secure and secret Munich warehouse. Authorities have not yet revealed the artworks as they are working on finding the rightful owners. German art historian Meike Hoffmann, from Berlin University, has been assessing their precise origin and value.
Cornelius Gurlitt's father, Hildebrandt, had been under the command of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to monetize the "degenerate" art. He later claimed that the seized art was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
The art was found hidden behind old cans of beans, fruit and noodles in his Munich apartment.
Descendants of Jewish collectors who were blackmailed or simply robbed of their works by the Nazis may now be able to legally claim ownership of some of the works.
"This case shows the extent of organized art looting which occurred in museums and private collections," said Ruediger Mahlo, of the Conference on Jewish material claims against Germany, noting private collections were almost all Jewish.
"We demand the paintings be returned to their original owners. It cannot be, as in this case, that what amounts morally to the concealment of stolen goods continues."
He criticized the lack of transparency in dealing with the case and said it was typical of the attitude towards looted art, which for some Jewish families constitutes the last personal effects of relatives murdered during the Holocaust.