Nation & World

German art trove includes unknown work by Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist Nazis hated

Even for the most stunning art find in recent memory, an untitled, and hitherto unknown, work by Marc Chagall seems to hold a special place among the hundreds of paintings found by German tax investigators in a Munich apartment almost two years ago.

The work is only one among more than 1,400 discovered in the apartment of 79-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, now nicknamed by German news media as the “Nazi Treasure Hoarder.” But it has drawn special attention in part because Chagall, who died in 1985, was everything the Nazis hated in the art world. He was Jewish (Robert Hughes, the late and famed Time magazine art critic, once called him “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century”) and he was modern. The Nazis labeled his work “degenerate.”

Meike Hoffmann, an art historian from Berlin’s Freie University whose career has been devoted to the art the Nazis stole, hated and were thought to have destroyed, seemed genuinely moved as she talked about the Chagall during a news conference Tuesday.

“A beautiful Chagall watercolor,” she said while looking up at a washed-out projection of the painting, which shows a kissing couple, a tipped-over chair and more beneath three moons. “An allegorical dream scene that was not listed and was so far unknown to the art world.”

The notion of introducing the world to a new Chagall summed up much of the value of the collection.

“To have discovered these works of art was to discover an immense feeling of joy,” she said.

Estimates have placed the value of the collection at as much as a billion euro, or $1.35 billion. But those trying to figure out to whom the works legally and morally belong, and whether there are criminal charges to pursue for possessing so much that had been taken by the Nazi regime, said it was too soon to talk about monetary value.

“Their value to humanity cannot be rated highly enough,” said Reinhard Nemetz, the Augsburg, Germany, prosecutor tasked with determining if the collection represents a criminal case.

Nemetz revealed a bit more about the circumstances of the discovery of the collection, which was thought to have been assembled primarily before World War II by a Dresden art dealer named Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had been commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to dispose of what the Nazis dubbed “degenerate art” – modern art that the Nazis considered un-German, Jewish or Bolshevist. After Gurlitt died in a car accident in 1956, the artwork apparently remained in the possession of his wife, then passed to the control of their son, Cornelius, after her death.

Cornelius Gurlitt came to the attention of German customs inspectors in September 2010, Nemetz said. The inspectors were curious about why he was carrying 9,000 euros, about $12,000, in cash when they questioned him as he crossed into Germany from Switzerland. Cornelius Gurlitt said he was returning from having sold a small piece of art. More than a year later, in February 2012, tax inspectors looking for evidence of unreported income raided his apartment, Nemetz said.

What they found in a single, dusty room of an apartment in an upscale Munich neighborhood was astounding – hundreds of pieces of art – “paintings, prints and works on paper,” said Nemetz – hidden behind stacks of canned foods, some of which had expired in the 1980s. The curtains in the room appeared permanently drawn, to prevent sunlight from damaging the works. Only 121 of them were framed, but the art, Hoffmann said, was “well preserved.”

“The collection is of extraordinary aesthetic quality and great academic value,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann, who has worked quietly on cataloging the collection since it was discovered, said she had only evaluated 500 of the works thus far. Chagall was, of course, hardly the only artist in the collection. There were three works by Pablo Picasso.

There were also works by Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Ernst Barlach, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Kaethe Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Max Liebermann.

Not all was modern. There were also works by masters from the 16th to 19th centuries: Albrecht Durer, Gustave Courbet, Carl Spitzweg and Canaletto.

“Individual research on the artists will profit a lot.” Hoffmann said of the find. “Figuring out what was looted and from whom will take a long time.”

As an example of why, she noted Courbet’s “Girl with Goat.” The painting was actually purchased by the Gurlitt family in 1949, four years after the end of the war. But she noted that at that time it was considered lost to the world, so the sale may not have been legal. Even with a postwar sale, figuring out the ownership is highly complex.

Nemetz, the prosecutor, said that authorities were considering charges of tax evasion and embezzlement. He wouldn’t go into details on why embezzlement, but he did note that in 1937 when the Nazi government removed 21,000 works of art from public museums in Germany, the museums were only rarely compensated with “art swaps” and often were not compensated at all. The Nazis handed what they had seized to four art dealers, including Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, to sell.

If the works were not sold, and the museums never paid for their works, courts could rule that that means they never officially left the museums’ possession.

In any case, Gurlitt lived off the grid, unregistered, not in the German health care or pension systems. In addition to the apartment in Munich where he kept the art, he is known to have a ramshackle home in Austria and a bank account with more than half a million euro ($675,000).

The German magazine Focus reported that he was thought to live off of the occasional sale of one of the works from the collection. His most recent sale, according to news accounts, was “The Lion Tamer” by Max Beckmann, for 864,000 euro ($1.16 million). Press reports said that after the dealer he used for the sale noted a legitimate legal claim to the work, Gurlitt worked out a deal with the legal owners and split the money down the middle.

News interviews with Gurlitt’s neighbors have gleaned little about the man, other than that he refused to let anyone into his apartment, even when he was required to have a water meter replaced. He was described as seldom at home, and officials said he appeared to have kept the apartment dark, to protect his artwork from sunlight.

As many as 200 of the found works are on international missing art lists, other reports have said.

Officials said they will not put the collection online. Some works could go to heirs as restitution, and those heirs may not want it known that they have such art in their homes. They also said that keeping the collection offline would reduce the number of frivolous claims.

McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed from Berlin.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee