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Stash Of Nazi-Looted Art Is Discovered


The legacy of the Nazi era endures in other ways in Germany. Just this week, the German magazine Focus broke the story of the largest cache of Nazi looted art to be discovered since World War II. More than 14,000 paintings, prints and drawings by some of the greatest artists of all time, from Albrecht Durer to Henri Matisse were found by authorities in a Munich apartment of a man named Cornelius Gurlitt.

The artworks were seized more than a year ago but have only now come to light. For more on the story, we are joined by Alexander Forbes, German bureau chief for the website Blouin ArtInfo. Thanks for joining us.

ALEXANDER FORBES: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: So what do we know about what was found here?

FORBES: So basically the raid occurred in 2012 and the tax authorities recovered 1406 paintings, drawings, watercolors and other various objects of art. Names thus far that have been released are Marc Chagall, Auguste Renoir, Matisse, as you mentioned, Pablo Picasso, Otto Dix, but they are being quite tight-lipped about the rest of it. It's kind of become a bit of a controversy over here. They haven't heeded calls to put images of all the work online.

GONYEA: So there's a lot we don't know, but are there specific paintings in here where when people see it, art scholars will go, oh, so there it is. It's been here all the time?

FORBES: The most notable one thus far that's been uncovered is one of the Matisse works. It's as picture of a seated woman and that's one of about 200 where there are outstanding request for their return. Now, a lot of the other ones have been debated, whether they were even Nazi loot to begin with or if they were legally acquired in some way, shape or form.

As the information has come out, only about a third of these have had some kind of extensive look into their past so far, so there might be a gem hidden in there, something very small that might be incredibly significant.

GONYEA: Some are framed, some are unframed. What do we know about the condition of the works at this point?

FORBES: This was a quite interesting point 'cause actually when the report first came out in Focus, the condition of the apartment where they were found, it looked pretty bleak. You had a kind of mental picture of a hoarder or something, but as it turns out they're in absolutely extraordinary quality and that they were professionally stored.

He had fashioned some kind of storage mechanism, homemade but professionally done. So there shouldn't be any extensive damage, nothing that a slight restoration wouldn't be able to fix.

GONYEA: So is there anything we know about the guy who collected all of this and how he came to accrue such a collection?

FORBES: If it is indeed this Cornelius Gurlitt whose been named, we actually know quite a bit about him and how the works may have come into his possession. His father, Hildebrandt, was an extremely well known art dealer and he was one of as few as four dealers asked by or named by Joseph Goebbels to sell of works that were confiscated or collected from German museums to help fund the regime. He was a very significant figure of the time, to say the least.

GONYEA: And what's next as best you can guess? What happens to these pieces?

FORBES: Well, it's at least a 10-year process, as far as I can see. When you have such a vast amount of work and work that has not been documented in over half a century, it's going to take significant research just to figure out exactly what they have. But I assume restitution efforts will begin or have already begun immediately and it's going to be a long process, but I think everybody's very hopeful that if and when the heirs to these masterpieces can be found, that they will be returned to them as quickly as possible.

GONYEA: Alexander Forbes, German bureau chief for the website Blouin ArtInfo. Thank you very much for talking about this.

FORBES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.