Looted Jewish Art Story Takes Spy Novel Twist — With Nazi Punchline

How Did Holocaust Hoarder Get 1,400 Vanished Artworks?

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By Toby Axelrod

Published November 12, 2013.

(JTA) — The extraordinary disclosure last week that a trove of more than 1,400 vanished artworks were found in a Munich apartment has raised more questions than it has answered.

What were these works, which were produced by masters such as Chagall, Matisse and Picasso? Who are their rightful owners? And where is Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Holocaust-era art dealer in whose apartment they were found?

Responding to growing international pressure, German authorities have begun to offer some preliminary answers.

This week, the state prosecutor in Augsburg started to put names and images of the works into a database run by Germany’s central office for lost cultural property, whose website promptly crashed due to an overload of requests.

Authorities also have confirmed that the collection contains at least 380 works that the Nazis confiscated during a 1937 campaign against so-called “degenerate art.”

Still, much remains unclear about the provenance of the works and how they came to be stored in Gurlitt’s apartment.

The case has unfolded like a suspense novel. On Sept. 22, 2010, customs agents searching for tax evaders on a night train from Zurich to Munich caught Gurlitt with 9,000 euros, just under the legal limit. Suspecting him of tax evasion and embezzlement, investigators were intrigued to find no record of Gurlitt ever working, paying taxes or receiving Social Security.

On Feb. 28, 2012, customs investigators carried out a search and seizure order of his apartment. Over three days, they carted off more than 1,400 works of art – many by artists banned by the Nazis, some of which were unknown to experts.

The seizure was kept secret until last week, when it was revealed by the German magazine Focus. Since then, it has been the talk of the nation.

“My reaction was ‘wow. Really wow!’ ” said Hannah Lessing, the secretary general of two Austrian government funds for Nazi victims who has worked to help heirs recover stolen art. “Maybe [now] there will be some people who inherited a whole house from their grandparents … and maybe they will ask themselves ‘where did this art come from?’ “

The Munich find is by far the most significant discovery of Holocaust-era artwork, pieces of which occasionally surface over the years in auction houses, vaults and even abandoned cellars. In 2010 in Berlin, workers excavating a subway tunnel unearthed a stash of sculptures by artists disliked by the Nazis.

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