1,500 Nazi artworks recovered in Germany worth $1.3bn

A hidden cache of around 1,500 modernist artworks that are thought to have been stolen by Nazis have surfaced in Germany.

Nazi degenerate art exhibition
Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler at the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, which showcased modernist works accompanied by labels deriding the art

The paintings are estimated to be worth around €1bn ($1.3bn), and include some of art's biggest names, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, among others. They were recovered from the flat of an 80-year-old German man, whose father was an art dealer in the second world war.

Hildebrand Gurlitt (1895-1956) had been a gallery owner, but was fired by the Nazis due to his half-Jewish heritage, and for exhibiting "degenerate art". Modernist art was banned in Germany as soon as the Nazi party came to power, as it was considered "un-German".

However, Gurlitt was later commissioned by the Nazis to sell works overseas. It was discovered that he had actually managed to keep most of the art for himself throughout the war, claiming that much of his collection had been destroyed during the Dresden bombings.

At the end of the second world war, Allied troops decided that Gurlitt had been a victim of Nazi crimes due to his Jewish heritage. He is said to have helped many Jewish-Germans to pay for their escape from Germany.

The art collection was then passed without the knowledge of the authorities to Hildebrand's son, Cornelius, where they were stored among tins of food on shelves in a darkened room in his Munich flat.

Several of the frames were empty on discovery, leading police to believe that he occasionally sold some of the works.

Max Beckmann Gurlitt Lion Tamer
Lion Tamer was one of the last works sold by Gurlitt to keep himself in pocket before the collection was discovered

It is thought that one of the last paintings that he sold was Lion Tamers by Max Beckmann, which made $1.1m at Lempertz auction house in Munich shortly before the collection was discovered. Police were only alerted to the haul after finding around $12,000 in cash on Gurlitt during a random search.

The collection was unearthed in 2011, though the media has been barred from reporting on it.

If the past is anything to go by, many of the works could well appear on the market in the future once they are returned to the families of their rightful owners. A Gustav Klimt portrait, returned to heirs of its original owner in 2006, subsequently sold for an estimated $135m.

Intriguingly, if the original owners of the paintings cannot be found, the works will likely be returned to Gurlitt, whose whereabouts are unknown.

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