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Unknown masterpieces found among trove stolen by Nazis

AFP-JIJI

Previously unknown masterpieces by modernist painters Marc Chagall and Otto Dix were among the vast trove of works believed stolen by the Nazis and hidden in a Munich flat, an art historian said Tuesday.

Meike Hoffmann, an expert aiding the investigation, said the Chagall painting, an allegorical scene dating from the mid-1920s, had a “particularly high art-historical value.” The Dix work is a rare self-portrait believed to have been painted in 1919.

The discovery in a garbage-strewn flat in Germany of nearly 1,500 paintings, including works by Picasso and Matisse looted by the Nazis, sparked urgent calls Monday to hunt for their rightful owners.

The shock find was reported Sunday by news weekly Focus, which valued the works at around €1 billion ($1.3 billion). Authorities repeatedly declined comment on the trove uncovered in 2011 but scheduled a news conference on Tuesday.

However, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin has been aware of the case for “several months” and is assisting an investigation by public prosecutors with experts in Nazi-era stolen art. He said he is unaware of any restitution demands.

Hundreds of the modernist masterpieces are believed to have been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish collectors or seized as part of crackdowns on “degenerate art.”

“I think it’s the biggest single find of Holocaust pictures that there’s been for years, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the total number of pictures that we’re looking for,” Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the London-based Art Loss Register, which runs an international database of stolen and missing works, said.

Investigators came upon the paintings during a 2011 search of an apartment belonging to the reclusive elderly son of art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had acquired them during the 1930s and 1940s, according to Focus.

The search was carried out because the son, Cornelius Gurlitt, was caught by customs authorities on a train from Switzerland to Munich with a large amount of cash.

The collection uncovered included many of the masters of the 20th century, among them Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Max Liebermann and Chagall,.

A person who was present at the search said that trash and discarded food packaging was scattered around the apartment and the paintings were stored on hand-built shelves hidden behind a curtain. Gurlitt’s father, despite having a Jewish grandmother, had become indispensable to officials in the Third Reich because of his art expertise and vast network of contacts.

Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, put Gurlitt in charge of selling the art abroad.

However, Gurlitt apparently secretly hoarded many of the works, and claimed after the war that the masterpieces were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.

His son had sold a few over the years, living off the proceeds, Focus said. For the moment he is only facing possible tax evasion charges.

The works are now stored in a customs warehouse outside Munich.

Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, led calls for an exhaustive search for the provenance of the paintings, at least 200 of which were officially reported missing.