The last place someone would expect to find $1.35 billion worth of art would be in a squalid apartment in Munich, Germany. Billions of dollars in art confiscated by Nazis sounds like a James Bond movie, but unlike the James Bond movies this story is fantastical and real.
The story of the missing art began when Hitler rose to power. During the Nazi reign, a German art collector was ousted from his position as director of the Hamburg Art Association due to his Jewish roots, and then was given the job of selling art that was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis, to overseas buyers. Throughout this period of time the German art collector kept some of the paintings he was supposed to sell, along with his original collection. After the war ended, he claimed that all of the artwork had been destroyed when his home was set on fire during the Dresden fire bombings. The man died in a traffic accident in 1956, and his son inherited his amazing collection.
The large number of pieces in the collection, 1,500 to be exact, not even including several paintings sold by the son for $12,200 in cash, were discovered in the 80 year-old son’s apartment. According to Spiegel Online International, “. . . between dirty plates and cans of food with sell-by dates from the last century were some 1,500 paintings, drawings, and etc nestled hings by famous artists including Pablo Picasso, Emil Nolde, Carl Spitzweg and Henri Matisse.” Even if you are not an art enthusiast, the discovery of this massive amount of unknown art, especially by such great artists, is exciting.
Finding such a fine collection of art is every bit as interesting as the story of how the art survived World War II by being in the art collector’s possession. The art collector’s son caught the attention of law officials when his bags were searched on the border between Germany and Switzerland. Because his bags contained $12,200 in cash, the police opted to keep him under surveillance, and in 2011, a court granted police permission to search his apartment. Upon searching his apartment the police seized the art and kept the collection in a customs office in Garching. The government hired an art historian to identify the art, and it was confirmed that the pieces are authentic.
After determining that the art was original, one question remained. “To whom does this art belong?” The answer depends on several factors. If the origin of the art works cannot be established, they might be returned to the suspect, because there is no other apparent owner. However, a statement given by the art dealer’s widow in the 1960’s may challenge her son’s ownership of the art. The widow informed authorities that her husband’s art collection had been destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden. The paintings were apparently not destroyed because they were found in the apartment intact. Because the widow may have been trying to hide the art that did not belong to them, a legal case could be brought against the 80 year-old son and he may have to forfeit his ownership rights of the art. If the government proves that the man is not the rightful owner of the art, the state or the German Federal Minister of Finance may claim it.
Despite this recently revealed information about the hidden art collection, other questions still remain: does the man still have more hidden art? Why did the authorities keep the case secret for so long? Why did the man keep such valuable art in such a dirty apartment? Until new reports are released, we can only speculate on the biggest art scandal of the 21st century.