German Government Slow to Return Art Hoard

Munich -- The discovery two years ago of 1500 works of modern art valued at over 1 billion euros raises many questions as to why the Bavarian authorities have taken so long to reveal their existence.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network are angered at the German government's torpid pace of restitution. Since 2011, the looted artworks have languished in a police warehouse.

Details of the German government's stash were uncovered Sunday by a report in Germany's Focus magazine, not by any official disclosure. {}

The drab, beige apartment building where the works were discovered two years ago, lies at the center of the investigation. The unit in question is about 250 meters (820 feet) from the English Garden, in the affluent northern Munich neighborhood of Schwabing favored by rich intellectuals.

This apartment is where Cornelius Gurlitt kept paintings handed down by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. The younger Gurlitt had been under investigation for tax-evasion when German customs agents raided his unit looking for contraband. Instead, buried amid heaps of trash, they found a fabulous trove of looted art.

Nazi Dealers

Based in Hamburg before World War II, Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956), was one of just four art dealers permitted by the Nazi authorities to sell artworks seized as “degenerate” from German museums from1937 to 1941.

Though they were instructed to sell them abroad for hard currency, the four passed many on to fellow German dealers or kept them for themselves, according to the Free University’s “Degenerate Art” website.

Most of the modern masterpieces were seized from Jewish collectors or removed by the Third Reich from commercial galleries, as "degenerate", has raised many questions as to how much is still lost or missing from the Nazi era.

The Gurlitt family kept the artworks and sold some as a source of income over the years, according to authorities.

Tracking Treasures

The Art Loss Register said that there are international warrants out for at least 200 of the works.

Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe told the BBC that 1,500 artworks found in Munich is just "the tip of the iceberg" and that 90% of the works seized by the Nazis is still untraced.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), is an international, expert and non-profit representative body which researches, identifies and recovers looted property on behalf of families, communities, institutions and governments worldwide.

It provides a Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945 at to fulfill Washington Principle VI which called for the creation of such a repository of information.

Additionally, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum maintains a record of at least 16,000 artworks that were taken by the Nazis during the later part of the war.

Important Paintings

The recently discovered trove which includes masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as well as the Swiss artist Paul Klee is thought to be worth 1 billion euros (£846m; $1.35bn).

Original owners of these works can be found on existing data bases, but have not yet been contacted by German authorities.

The works include a painting entitled “Portrait of a Lady”, by Henri Matisse that once belonged to Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg, pictured above, with Matisse work on right.

Rosenberg -- whose granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, the journalist and estranged wife of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- was forced to leave his collection behind when he fled the Nazis. Sinclair is now likely to claim possession of the important work.

“The federal government is supporting the Augsburg prosecutors with experts in the field of so-called degenerate art,” German chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a Berlin news conference. “Of course we can’t comment on the investigation. The government has been kept informed of this case for several months now.”