The true secret held by Cornelius Gurlitt an elderly and reclusive owner of a Munich apartment is so fantastic it sounds like the plot from a Dan Brown novel or a script for the television show Castle. Gurlitt who neighbors say lived “like a ghost” was hiding a wealth of artwork looted by the Nazis much of it one of a kind pieces that have never been on public display.
Many of the paintings found in the dirty and neglected apartment are unknown, but have been confirmed as the original works of masters by experts. The find was made possible not by an intrepid detective following a series of clues to the treasure trove of stolen artwork, but by the sharp eyes of German customs officials who chanced to spot the then 76-year-old Gurlitt behaving suspiciously on an express train from Zurich to Munich in 2012. Initially, because the German resident was carrying a large amount of cash he couldn’t account for the investigation was based on suspicion of tax evasion, but once tax authorities searched Gurlitt’s apartment they realized they’d stumbled into much more than a plan to sell a few paintings without declaring the sale.
Authorities haven’t yet explained why it took almost two years to report the 1,400 works found, but it is being reported at this time that the German authorities still believe there might be yet more treasures to be discovered.
Gurlitt is the son the famous art collector and Nazi supporter Hildebrand Gurlitt who died in 1956. Authorities believe that after the works were systematically stolen from Jews throughout Nazi controlled Europe in the years just before and during World War II the artwork found in Gurlitt’s apartment and perhaps much more was hidden first by the father, and then by his son.
During WWII it’s believed that as many as 700,000 works or art were looted from Jew residents of German, Austria, Poland, France, and Italy. Very few pieces have ever been returned, and in the decades since the heirs these stolen estates have continued the fight to see artwork, jewelry, and money returned. Art and priceless historical artifacts were also confiscated from several major museums in Amsterdam, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe by the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s.
The hoard of art confiscated by the Third Reich found in Gurlitt’s fifth floor apartment is currently valued at between $860 million to $1 billion U.S. dollars. Despite the fact the art wasn’t professionally stored and was kept in a less than perfect environment most of it is still in decent condition according to authorities who are still laboring to track down ownership of the works. Among the paintings are Chagall, Klees, Munchs, Matisses, and several Picassos. At this time Gurlitt is still only being investigated for tax evasion at this time. In Sweden an art gallery informed the Guardian that Guritt sold some paintings there in the 1990s, but they insist this was a perfectly legal transaction.
The legal aspects of the case are at this point in time unclear as there’s no binding law regarding artwork looted by the Nazis. Most governments and representatives of the world’s art community do however state there’s a moral obligation to return such works to the heirs of those who were forced into concentration camps and robbed of their personal possessions during the Nazi’s occupation.