€1bn treasure trove of Nazi art seized in customs raid
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-and Auguste Renoir– from the Munich flat of an elderly man suspected of hiding his wealth in Swiss banks.
The paintings were found stacked in the flat of Cornelius Gurlitt (80) whose father, a Munich art dealer, is believed to have acquired them in the 1930s and 1940s. Hildebrandt Gurlitt was an associate of the Nazi leadership who is thought to have acquired works deemed "degenerate" – largely seized from Jewish collectors.
His surviving son had apparently kept the collection in his home and is thought to have sold pieces as a means of support.
One of the best pieces in the collection is Portrait of a Lady by Matisse that once belonged to Paul Rosenburg, the grandfather of Anne Sinclair, the former wife of the disgraced head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Ms Sinclair has been a prominent campaigner for the return of art looted by the Nazis to their former owners.
Germany's 'Focus' magazine reported that Cornelius Gurlitt was stopped on a train to Swizerland in 2010 carrying €9,000 in cash during a sweep by the authorities against Germans with undeclared Swiss bank accounts.
A follow-up search of his home uncovered a vast stash of artworks hoarded behind tins and packets of food. One official said the works were thought to be worth more than €1bn.
Mr Gurlitt lived without earning a declared income but was said to have 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 said. "But we were stunned. From floor to ceiling, from bedroom to bathroom, were piles and piles of old food in tins and old noodles. Behind it all were these pictures worth tens, hundreds of millions of euro."
Mr Gurlitt even put one of the artworks up for sale after he was detained but before the collection was seized. The Cologne auction house sold Lion Tamer, Circus by Max Beckmann for €864,000.
Josef Goebbels used the elder Mr Gurlitt to sell part of the 20,000-item "Degenerate Art" collection which was put on display in Munich in 1937 to showcase art of which the Nazis disapproved.
The Nazi propaganda chief later appointed Mr Gurlitt to be the director of a "super museum" the Germans hoped to build in Linz, the Austrian city where Hitler grew up. (© Daily Telegraph, London)