The discovery in 2011 by German customs officials of a hoard of over 1,400 art works by modern masters, including Picasso, Matisse and Klee, was the result of a chance border control between Germany and Switzerland, the German news magazine Focus recently revealed.

Henri Matisse_Gurlitt

Detail of a painting by Henri Matisse that is said to have been appropriated by Hildebrandt Gurlitt from the reputed Parisian art dealer, Paul Rosenberg under inappropriate circumstances. | AFP/CHRISTOF STACHE

According to the magazine, the works of art amassed by art historian Hildebrand Gurlitt during the Nazi era were thought to have disappeared during the bombing of Dresden at the end of the Second World War but had been stored all this time in a Munich apartment occupied by Gurlitt’s reclusive son. The current value of the collection is an estimated CHF 1.23 billion ($1.39 billion).

Cornelius Gurlitt travelled frequently by train between Switzerland and Germany. But in September 2010 his odd behaviour attracted the attention of the customs officers. The €9,000 carried in cash, which Gurlitt claimed was the result of a transaction with Gallery Kornfeld in Bern, was enough to warrant the interest of the German officials on the lookout for tax evaders. Convinced that Gurlitt would have more undeclared income they searched his flat in a wealthy Munich suburb. Instead, according to Focus, they found 1,400 modernist works of art piled from floor to ceiling, behind discarded food wrappings and empty tins. More than 200 of those paintings of inestimable value were the object of international search warrants issued long ago.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was a respected art historian who felt the need to ingratiate himself to the Nazis, in part because he was Jewish on his mother’s side. He had acquired the collection of modernist masterpieces either through duress, by acquiring them for a pittance from Jewish families fleeing the country, or obtaining them through the confiscation process set up by the Nazis to eliminate “degenerate” art from Germany, contemporary art despised by the Nazis.

It has been suggested that the main reason the German authorities kept the information of the discovery under wraps for the past two and a half years is the existence of a 1938 law passed by the Nazis that legalised the confiscation of degenerate art and that has never been revoked. Technically, Cornelius Gurlitt could be the rightful owner.

As for the Swiss link, Galerie Kornfeld, the auction house in Bern, denies that Gurlitt visited in September 2010. On 4 November, it issued a statement: “The last business and personal contact between Galerie Kornfeld and Cornelius Gurlitt goes back to 1990.” Gurlitt’s whereabouts are now unknown.

Source: Michèle Laird, swissinfo.ch, Swiss News Agency, Focus magazine

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Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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