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Amazement, anger follow art find in Germany

Country offers peek at works in apartment

Adolf Hitler examined works labeled  “degenerate” art by the Nazis at a display in Dresden in 1935.

Ullstein Bild /Reuters

Adolf Hitler examined works labeled “degenerate” art by the Nazis at a display in Dresden in 1935.

AUGSBURG, German — It is almost certainly the biggest trove of missing 20th-century European art discovered since the end of World War II, and the first glimpse of it on Tuesday brought astonishment but also anger and the early stirrings of what will likely be a prolonged battle over who owns the works.

For the first time, German authorities described how they discovered 1,400 or so works during a routine tax investigation, including ones by Matisse, Chagall, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and a host of other masters. Some were previously not known to have existed. Others appear to have disappeared around the time the Nazis raided German museums and public collections in the late 1930s to confiscate works they classified as “degenerate.”

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Meike Hoffmann, an art historian called in to evaluate the discoveries in the spring of 2012, said she could not believe her eyes, realizing that “we are missing a part of our culture” that the Nazis had tried to destroy and that had now miraculously reappeared.

“These are truly museum-quality works, and you simply do not find these on the market anymore,” she said.

But she and German officials offered only a peek — pictures of a mere handful of the works and a short list of artists — at a packed news conference Tuesday in Augsburg, an old Bavarian town, leaving many unanswered questions and provoking mounting criticism of officials’ slow and perhaps overly discreet handling of the trove.

Fully aware that the discovery is bound to set off a storm of claims — already being mobilized — officials in Augsburg would not release a complete inventory of what they know so far about their discovery, citing privacy rights and concerns that tracing the provenance of the works will be a costly labor that could take years.

Officials would not say where the works are stored. They would not even confirm the name of the man who is believed to have kept the art hidden for decades in his Munich apartment. Nor, they said, do they know where that man is now.

The discovery of the works was first reported by Focus magazine on Sunday. They were thought to have been found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, 79 or 80, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was stripped of two museum posts by the Nazis after it was determined that he had a Jewish grandparent.

Nonetheless, the elder Gurlitt later became one of the few art dealers selected by Joseph Goebbels to sell to buyers abroad the modernist works banned by the Nazis.

Some of the works seized in the apartment appear to resemble the titles of works that were in the custody of American and German investigators sent to safeguard cultural treasures in the late 1940s, said Marc Masurovsky, founder of the Holocaust Art Research Project.

In 1950 that unit ultimately returned 115 works to the elder Gurlitt because he convinced the unit that the works were not illegally acquired, said Masurovsky, whose organization recently joined with Paris-based dealer and restitutions specialist Elizabeth Royer.

For example, American cultural advisers returned “Self-Portrait,” by Otto Dix, and “Lion Tamer,” by Max Beckmann, both names of works that have been identified as being in Gurlitt’s possession.

The heirs of Jewish and other German collectors whose missing artworks may be among those discovered minced few words, accusing the Germans of failing to live up to the spirit of the 1998 Washington accords on restituting confiscated art or works that sellers were forced to give up for rock-bottom prices in order to flee Nazi Germany.

One of the only former owners to be publicly identified is Paul Rosenberg, a French dealer whose family has spent decades searching for hundreds of confiscated works.

His granddaughter Marianne Rosenberg said she was angry that her family members had not been contacted and that they were still unable to get more information about a Matisse that reports have identified as belonging to her grandfather.

“We were aware of the name Gurlitt,” she said. “We are trying to track down things ourselves and fail to understand why the German authorities have said nothing to date.”

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