The Atlantic

The Persistent Crime of Nazi-Looted Art

The discovery of more than 1,500 artworks in a flat in Munich serves as an inconvenient reminder of one of the unresolved wrongs of the Third Reich.
Source: Ralf Juergens / Getty / Jeff Martin

The discovery, when it was made, came entirely by chance. On September 22, 2010, a stooped, white-haired man in his late 70s taking an evening train from Zurich to Munich was asked by customs officers why he was crossing the Swiss border. The gentleman, Cornelius Gurlitt, responded with such nervousness that he triggered the officers’ suspicions. When they searched his person, they found an envelope he was carrying that contained 18 brand-new 500-Euro notes—9,000 Euros in total.

The cash itself wasn’t a crime; Gurlitt had reportedly visited Switzerland to sell a picture to a gallery in Bern. But the strangeness of the situation led to further investigation of Gurlitt’s finances, and a search warrant for his Munich apartment that in February 2012 uncovered one of the most extraordinary stashes of art since the end of World War II. Inside a small flat in a boxy white building, hidden in filing cabinets and suitcases, investigators found more than 1,500 works by artists including Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Liebermann, Chagall, Durer, and Delacroix. The German authorities were investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion; what they found instead was an amassment of art that was immediately, incontrovertibly suspicious.

The trove was seized by Bavarian officials and taken away for inspection. It was also kept quiet for more than a year, until the German magazine Focus published a breathy report about the discovery, alleging that the value of the secret masterpieces could total one billion Euros. The article also noted the baggage associated with the Gurlitt name: that the items hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt had likely been acquired by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the most notorious art dealers employed by the Third Reich. The fact that the Bavarian authorities seem to have sat on the find was attributed to the reality that they just didn’t know what to do with what they’d uncovered. In that sense, the Gurlitt Dossier, as it came to be known, was representative of so much about Nazi art plunder. It was huge. It was exceedingly complicated. Above all, the trove was an inconvenient reminder that the issue of looted and confiscated art persists as one of the unresolved crimes of the Nazi regime.

In the decade leading up to 1945, it’s estimated that the Nazis stole one-fifth of all the artworks in Europe. The scale of such theft is hard to comprehend, and even harder to quantify. The figure usually touted is 650,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, books, and other works, taken from museums and churches and private collections across the continent. But smaller numbers also offer some sense of the absurdity of the plundering. In 1938, as Susan Ronald writes in her book , a warehouse on Köpenikerstrasse in Berlin was filled with so many items (more than 12,000)that it qualified by default as one of Germany’s largest museums.

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