Nazi looted art discovered in Munich
Another day, another revelation, another bombshell and another need for rethinking what we already know. Approximately €1 billion (£846 million) worth of works of art stolen by the Nazis has been found in Munich, Germany, it has been revealed.
In 2011, over 1,500 paintings were discovered in an apartment that belongs to Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer, who was under investigation from the authorities over tax evasion.
Officials had managed to secure a search warrant and upon entering the building, were shocked to find a treasure trove of art that was either thought to have been lost under Nazi rule or destroyed for being what Adolf Hitler and his colleagues described as degenerate art.
The German magazine Focus said that the cache of paintings includes works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, artists whom history has understood to be some of the greatest visionaries of their time, but were thought of as debauched by the Nazis.
However, this finding, which is considered to be one of the most important in recent art history, challenges many assumptions we have about what the Nazis thought about art, suggests the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones.
“The Degenerate Art exhibition was real enough – but did it really mean the Nazis hated modern art?” he asked in an article for the newspaper.
“It is because we take this for granted that no one has been searching for lost ‘degenerate’ works such as those in the flat in Munich. Some works from the Entartete Kunst exhibition, many seized from once-progressive German museums, were sold abroad afterwards. Others have vanished.”
Lots of works were ‘bought’ by Nazis, their Jewish owners conned out of their prized possessions, and much was destroyed. However, as this discovery shows, that assumption no longer holds true and it is reasonable to now discuss other historical alternatives.
For example, as Mr Jones discusses, after the second world war ended, can we now speculate that similar works of art have been used to help keep war criminals out of sight or even as a means of funding neo-Nazi activity? Surely new lines of investigation into this fascinating area are now on the cards? After all, thousands of works remain lost.
While this case is certainly quite spectacular, deeply interesting and heartwarming – you’ve chanced upon the impossible – it has not been without its criticisms. Ruediger Mahlo, of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, slammed the German government for the lack of transparency regarding the finding.
“This case shows the extent of organised art looting which occurred in museums and private collections,” said Mr Mahlo. “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.”
Anne Webber, from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, agreed as much, telling the BBC that Germany has historically been ill-equipped to appropriately deal with incidences like this, slow to, for example, to establish provenance and see works returned to the heirs of their original owners.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum believes that the Nazis confiscated around 16,000 works of art illegally when they were in power. Ms Webber believes that as much as 90 per cent is still missing. While once it would have been logical to conclude much of this was destroyed, this story brings a lot of hope that somewhere, much of it still exists.
Cadogan Tate has extensive experience in shipping fine art all over the world.