A random background check designed to expose money-launderers travelling to Switzerland has uncovered a treasure trove of modern art thought to have been destroyed in Nazi Germany.
Customs officials seized the haul of 1,500 works including masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Marc Chagall from the Munich flat of an elderly man suspected of hiding his wealth in Swiss banks.
The stash of paintings was found stacked in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, 80, the son of a prominent Munich art dealer, who is believed to have acquired the paintings during the 1930s and 1940s.
Hildebrandt Gurlitt was an associate of the Nazi leadership who is thought to have acquired works deemed “degenerate” that had largely been seized from Jewish collectors.
His surviving son had apparently kept the collection in his home and is thought to have sold off some of the works as a means of support.
One of the best pieces in the collection is Portrait of a Lady by Matisse that once belong to Paul Rosenburg, the grandfather of Anne Sinclair, the former wife of the disgraced head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Miss Sinclair has been a prominent campaigner for the return of art looted by the Nazis to their former owners. Rosenburg lost his own collection when he fled for his life during the fall of Paris.
Germany’s Focus magazine reported Gurlitt’s son was stopped on a train to Swizerland in 2010 carrying 9,000 euros in cash during a sweep by the authorities against Germans with undeclared bank accounts across the border.
A follow-up search of Gurlitt’s home uncovered an unimageable stash of artworks hoarded behind tins and packets of food. One official said the works were now worth more than one billion euros.
The younger Gurlitt lived without earning a declared income but had more than 500,000 in bank accounts. He has been charged with tax evasion and money-laundering.
'We went into the apartment expecting to find a few thousand undeclared euros, maybe a black bank account,” a Customs spokesman told Focus. 'But we were stunned with what we found. From floor to ceiling, from bedroom to bathroom, were piles and piles of old food in tins and old noodles. Behind it all these pictures worth tens, hundreds of millions of euros.”
Gurlitt even put one of the artworks up for sail after he was detained but before the collection was seized. The Colonge auction house sold Lion Tamer, Circus by Max Beckmann for 864,000 euros (£731,000).
Josef Goebbels used the elder Gurlitt to sell part of the 20,000 Degenerate Art collection which was put on display in Munich in 1937. Goebbels later appointed him to be the director of a “super museum” the Nazis hoped to build in Linz, Austria.
After the war, Gurlitt was allowed to continue his business. He told allied investigators that the artworks were destroyed when the family mansion was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden in Febuary 1945.
Meike Hoffmann, a Berlin-based art dealer has been asked to help track down the potential owners of the works. At least 200 pieces are thought to be on lists of missing treasures.