BY DAVID McHUGH
---- — AUGSBURG, Germany — It started with a routine check by German tax inspectors — and resulted in the discovery of an art hoard so vast and spectacular that no one yet knows how the story truly ends.
On a high-speed train from Zurich to Munich on Sept. 22, 2010, Germany’s briskly polite officialdom was on the lookout for customs and tax cheats. Thousands of German citizens had bank accounts in Switzerland, many of them undeclared, and the route from Zurich was a prime target for those carrying substantial sums of cash.
One elderly man on the train raised their suspicions, and prosecutors launched a preliminary tax probe against him.
Two years later, in February 2012, the trail led to the man’s apartment in a wealthy district of Munich. Once inside, inspectors found a far-more glittering prize than smuggled cash or evaded taxes: a huge collection of hidden artwork that sheds new light on some of the 20th-century’s master painters and reawakens painful memories of Germany’s Nazi past.
The paintings, drawings, engravings, woodcuts and prints numbered more than 1,400 in all and were created by an all-star roster of modern art: Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oskar Kokoschka, and leading German artists Otto Dix, Max Liebermann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. At least one older work was in the trove: a 16th-century engraving of the Crucifixion by Albrecht Duerer.
Some pieces — ones by Matisse, Chagall, Dix — were previously unknown, not listed in the detailed inventories compiled by art scholars.
Investigators’ excitement at the find was tempered by a disturbing question. At least some of the works had apparently been seized by the Nazis — so who were they taken from and who now are their rightful owners?
At a news conference yesterday in Augsburg, prosecutors wouldn’t identify the elderly suspect, citing tax secrecy laws and the ongoing investigation. They did say he hasn’t asked for the artwork back and that they were not currently in contact with him.
Prosecutors are probing whether he improperly acquired the works, but no charges have been filed, and prosecutors say there may not be any.
Although prosecutors didn’t name the suspect, heirs of the late Jewish collector Alfred Flechtheim issued a statement saying the case raised “justifiable suspicions” that some works the Nazis had taken from him might have been bought by Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who acted for the Nazis.
A Max Beckmann painting that once belonged to Flechtheim was sold two years ago through the Lempertz auction house in Cologne. A legal adviser for Lempertz, Karl-Sax Feddersen, told The Associated Press that the seller was Gurlitt’s son Cornelius.
The German magazine Focus also reported that Cornelius Gurlitt was the man under investigation.
Neither Cornelius Gurlitt nor his lawyer could immediately be reached for comment yesterday.
The mystery now turns to the art.
The 121 framed and 1,285 unframed works found in one room at the apartment were “professionally stored and in a very good condition,” said Siegfried Kloeble, head of the customs investigations office in Munich. He said it took a specialist company three days to remove the paintings; officials refused to say where they are being kept now.
Investigators, aided by a leading art historian, are trying to establish the artworks’ legal status and history. So far, officials said they have done at least preliminary research on only about 500 of the pieces.
It’s unclear how many of the works might be subject to return to pre-World War II owners.
Speaking at the news conference, prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said investigators have turned up “concrete evidence” that the find includes both works that the Nazis classed as “degenerate art” and seized from German museums in 1937 or shortly after, and other works that may have been taken from individuals. The Nazis often forced Jewish collectors to sell their art at pitifully low prices to German dealers or simply took them.
“Degenerate art” was largely modern or abstract works that Adolf Hitler’s regime believed to be a corrupt influence on the German people. Many such works were later sold to enrich the Nazis. An art expert working with prosecutors said those sales are legally valid, even if other works in the collection may eventually be found to belong to survivors of Nazi persecution or their heirs.
Art historian Meike Hoffmann, an expert on “degenerate art” at the Free University of Berlin, offered a glimpse of some of the works during a slide show at the same news conference.
She showed works she said had not been known to scholars, or known only from documents without any photos to give an idea what the works looked like.
“Such cases are of high importance to art historians,” she explained.