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Picasso, Matisse masterpieces uncovered in Munich after 70 years in hiding

November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: A trove of about 1,500 works of modernist art have been found in a Munich apartment. The masterpieces were acquired by the Nazis during the Second World War and remained hidden for seven decades.

We have a report from Cordelia Lynch of Independent Television News.

CORDELIA LYNCH: Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, the roll call of grand masters behind artwork allegedly looted by the Nazis. They were found more than two years ago, but were kept secret, and we still can’t see them. Some experts say it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

ANNE WEBBER, Commission for Looted Art in Europe: We’re talking about artworks that you can buy without any history of ownership. You can sell them without any history of ownership. People are prepared to buy.  People think — and if they are problematic, they can get sold privately.

CORDELIA LYNCH: The grand trove was found in this flat in Munich, surrounded by clutter. And it was all by chance.

Tax officials came here to speak to Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. He’s been in charge of collecting so-called degenerate modern art in the run-up to the Second World War, seized from Jews or removed from galleries, but it appears he left some of them to his son.

Here at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, there are examples of the type of pieces Hitler so loathed.

RACHEL DICKSON, Ben Uri Gallery: What we have heard to date I think has tended to focus on the stellar artists, the Picasso, the Chagall, the Matisse. But then there is a whole lower echelon perhaps of German artists who were decried as degenerate. For example, here, we have Hans Feibusch. He was an extremely successful painter.

This represents a whole tranche of modernism that the Nazis declared was anti-German, anti-patriotic. So you were cutting out a whole swathe of wonderful progressive art.

CORDELIA LYNCH: Hitler filled civic buildings with lessons of what not to like. He seized thousands of those works that didn’t conform to his romantic vision of Germany. Many remain hidden or harbored in homes and institutions. It’s claimed The Lion Tamer by painter Max Beckmann is one of the paintings Gurlitt has already sold.

There will no doubt now be a rush of claims on the collection. But the picture is lacking a lot of detail, and galleries and museums across the world are busy trying to join up the dots.

Unlike more contemporary art, many pieces from the 1930s and ’40s are not registered. And for families fighting to reclaim the products of a lost generation, it’s a struggle, despite the deeply dubious ways they were acquired.

EDMONDO DI ROBILANT, Robilant and Voena Fine Arts Dealers: We have had one or two issues over the last 10 years, some of which are still unresolved, unfortunately. But the further back you go, the more difficult it is to find exact provenances that are unbroken from the 16th, 17th, 18th century.

Often, you will have provenances, but with gaps in between. And in the past, that would have been considered perfectly OK. Now, if those gaps are between the mid-1930s and the late-1940s, then, obviously it’s cause for concern.

ANNE WEBBER: Every painting is a story of a family. And that’s why it’s so important for the family to have them back, because they are part of their own history.

And they reflect also the taste or the personality of the person to whom it belonged. And, often, they were ripped away in terrible circumstances. Those lives were destroyed or utterly transformed. And so to have them back is a link with that past that was taken away.

CORDELIA LYNCH: And who knows what other unwritten histories still remain unseen behind closed doors.