Police Find 1,500 Lost Modernist Masterpieces, Confiscated by the Nazis

According to a German media report, police may have uncovered about 1,500 Nazi-confiscated works of art long thought to be lost.

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The Nazis hated Modernist art. Modernist works, like those by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee, were purged by the Nazis from museums and collections as "degenerate," or un-German. Other works were taken from Jewish collectors. But now, according to a German media report, police may have uncovered about 1,500 confiscated works long thought to be lost. They were sitting in the apartment of an 80-year-old son of a German art collector. The found pieces reportedly come from two major art confiscation programs run by the Nazis: the "degenerate" museum and collection purges, and the forced sale and seizure of works held by Jewish collectors.

Cornelius Gurlitt, son of German collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, reportedly inherited his collection from his father. The elder Gurlitt was half-Jewish, but later commissioned by the Nazis anyway to sell the modernist works for a profit, explains Focus, the weekly German magazine that first reported the story. That's apparently how he was able to amass such an important collection. But Cornelius Gurlitt was a loner, and kept the works "amid juice cartons and tins of food on homemade shelves in a darkened room," according to the Guardian. He occasionally sold the masterpieces when he needed an infusion of funds, until his collection was seized in 2011 during a raid on his home as part of a tax evasion investigation. Since then, the collection's been reportedly kept under wraps as historian Meike Hoffmann assesses their origins and value. Hoffmann promised a comment on the story to the Guardian on Monday. Focus said the collection was worth over $1 billion.

So why was the seizure kept quiet for two years? It's not entirely clear, but it could have something to do with the massive amount of legal work such a find, if confirmed to be genuine, would prompt. The New York Times explains that 200 of the works in question are the subjects of international warrants. The Guardian adds that German officials "can expect a huge number of claims for restitution from around the world" as a result of the find.

In all, the Nazis seized about 16,000 works of art from museums, but not all of those paintings were lost in the process. Many were sold internationally, often at a very low price, by a handful of German art dealers. About 300 of the 1,500 found paintings are believed to be seized from collections because the Nazis didn't like them. The rest were from Jewish collectors, according to the report in Focus. At least one of the found paintings belonged to Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso and Matisse, among other famous modernist painters. He had to abandon his art collection when he fled Germany.

Photo: Picasso's 1949 lithograph, "Woman with Hairnet" at The Detroit Institute of Arts. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.