Masterpieces thought to be destroyed by Nazis discovered in Munich

November 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the discovery and recovery of a treasure trove of looted art from World War II and the questions it’s raising in the art world and elsewhere about rights and ownership.

MEIKE HOFFMANN, Free University of Berlin: Of course, it was very emotional for me to see all the works of art.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meike Hoffmann is lead researcher on the newly- discovered collection of more than 1,400 paintings and prints looted by the Nazis. In Augsburg on Tuesday, she recounted the moment she first saw the trove, speaking at times in English and then in German.

MEIKE HOFFMANN (through interpreter): When you’re standing in front of these works which, for a long time, were believed to have disappeared or to have been destroyed, it is an incredible feeling of joy. They are in relatively good condition. Some of them are dirty, but not damaged.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The collection spans the 16th century to the 20th and includes pieces by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, as well as unknown works by German artist Otto Dix and French artist Henri Matisse, amid others.

They were found in this Munich apartment building in 2012, stored in the middle of trash piles. The elderly man who lived there is reportedly the son of a collector used by the Nazis to obtain art they considered degenerate. Some of it was sold abroad.

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MAN: They were the greatest thieves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 2007 documentary “The Rape of Europa” explored the Nazis’ theft and destruction of artwork across Europe. News of this discovery was revealed Monday after a German magazine broke the story. Some Jewish groups have questioned why authorities withheld the discovery until now, but state prosecutor REINHARD NEMETZ says there was no hidden agenda.

REINHARD NEMETZ, German prosecutor (through interpreter): We didn’t keep something secret with improper intention. The reasons were purely practical ones which forced us not to make this public. In addition, there are legal reasons, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The collection has a potential value of more than $1.3 billion. Still to be determined is who ultimately will have the rights to all the paintings.