The recovery rate for stolen art may take a dramatic shift towards original owners. The German magazine Focus has broken the story of an incredible find. One of the most remarkable discoveries of stolen art that I can think of. A reported 1,500 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, and others was stored in an apartment in Berlin for years. The works were likely spoliated by Nazis during the 1930s-40s.
When authorities executed a search warrant they found the works stacked in a dark room in a flat in this apartment block in Munich. They were hidden there by Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, who was the son of a Munich art dealer.
The works were discovered after tax authorities executed a search warrant of Gurlitt’s apartment in 2011. He was stopped on a train bound for Switzerland with 9,000 euros in cash, and had plans to deposit the money in undeclared Swiss accounts. When the authorities searched his home they found what must be one of the largest ever single recoveries of stolen art.
Many have criticized the delay in reporting the discovery of the works of art. We will wait to hear from German authorities why the details of the recovery have been kept so quiet. But in this age, we must admire the fact that what is being reported as a trove of art worth nearly a billion dollars was kept secret for so long. There are some things we can speculate as to why we are only hearing this news two years later. The authorities may have been attempting to track down claimants, or simply to decide how this art should be returned. Will there be an ad hoc claims tribunal set up to decide how best to allocate the works? How many claimants or their successors have been contacted? Because the first thing I thought when I heard the news was that art lawyers around the world immediately heard the sound of potential clients knocking on their doors.
There are potential suits against the German authorities who confiscated the art, and complicated potential claims between the claimants to the art. Inter-family disputes and the like. But the likely beneficiaries of all this art being rediscovered will be auction houses, art collectors, and even museum-goers where many of these arts will likely end up.
The Art Newspaper reports that claims had already been made to 200 of the works that had been found:
These include TV journalist Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of the Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg and wife of the French banker and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Three hundred of the works belonged to the list of “Degenerate Art” compiled by the Nazis. Meike Hoffmann of the Freie Universität, Berlin, is currently studying the provenance of all 1500 pieces and assessing their value.
A staggering number of works, many of which by some of the most-respected artists of the modernist period. I don’t blame the German authorities for waiting to reveal the discovery, as it will surely not be an easy process to return these works to their original owners, or decide what should be done with the art if those claimants cannot be found. Chris Marinello in an interview with the Telegraph noted that this may be a re-invigoration of WWII-era art litigation and restitution. That’s exactly right I think, because the question now becomes how many large collection like this are still out there?
- Damien McElroy, Treasures lost under Nazis found in elderly German’s flat, Telegraph, Nov. 3, 2013
- Lost works of art worth perhaps billion found in Munich flat, The Art Newspaper, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/I-lost-works-of-art-worth-perhaps-billion-found-in-Munich-flat/30999.
- Sensationsfund in Schwabing: Geheimniskrämerei um Nazi-Schatz entsetzt Kunstmäzen – Kunst FOCUS Online, http://www.focus.de/kultur/kunst/sensationsfund-in-schwabing-geheimniskraemerei-um-nazi-schatz-entsetzt-kunstmaezen_aid_1148125.html (last visited Nov 4, 2013).
- Modernist art haul, “looted by Nazis”, recovered by German police the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/03/nazis-looted-modernist-masterpieces-germany-police.