Trove of paintings has works looted by Nazis, masterpieces

LONDON -- A massive cache of art discovered in the Munich apartment of an elderly recluse contains hitherto-unknown works by famous artists as well as pieces believed confiscated by the Nazis in their persecution of Jews or their campaign against “degenerate art,” German prosecutors said Tuesday.

Some of the 1,400 items are known masterpieces believed destroyed during World War II; others are new to art historians, such as a self-portrait by painter Otto Dix. The hoard boasts works by giants of the 20th century -- Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann -- but also some older pieces, including a painting from the 16th century.

"When you stand in front of works and see these long-lost works in good condition that were thought to have been destroyed, that is such a happy feeling," said Meike Hoffmann, an art expert at the Free University of Berlin who has been examining the hoard. "The pictures are of extraordinary quality and are of huge scientific value. Many works were not known before."

In all, authorities seized 121 framed works and 1,285 unframed works in good condition from the crowded apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a well-known Nazi-era art dealer, said

Reinhard Nemetz, a prosecutor in the southern German city of Augsburg, near Munich.

Nemetz said there was “concrete evidence” that some of the works had been plundered or confiscated by the Nazis. Yet he said that police are not in touch with Gurlitt and have not arrested him, though the 80-year-old is under investigation for possible tax evasion and embezzlement.

“We currently have no contact with the suspect. But there is no urgent suspicion that would justify a warrant,” Nemetz told reporters.

The raid on Gurlitt’s flat, the culmination of a long investigation, occurred over a three-day period, from Feb. 28 to March 2, 2012, Nemetz said. That is a year later than was reported by the German magazine Focus, which broke the story of the remarkable discovery this past weekend.

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