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Massive art collection stolen by Nazis valued at US$1.35b

A vast trove of modern art seized under Germany’s Nazi regime, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, has been discovered in a Munich apartment among stacks of rotting groceries, German magazine Focus reported.

The 1,500 art works, missing for more than 70 years, and discovered by chance by customs authorities in the southern German state of Bavaria in 2011, could be worth around 1 billion euros (US$1.35 billion), Focus said.

There was no word on why the find had taken so long to come to light.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Berlin had been aware of the case for “several months” and was assisting an investigation by public prosecutors with experts in Nazi-era stolen art

Focus said experts were now valuing the paintings, drawings and prints, being held in a customs depot, and trying to determine their ownership.

Some may once have been on display in German museums, then removed from 1937 onwards because Hitler’s Third Reich considered them “degenerate,” while others were seized, or forcibly sold for a pittance by persecuted Jewish collectors.

“I think it’s the biggest single find of Holocaust pictures that there’s been for years, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the total number of pictures that we’re looking for,” said Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register.

The collection was also believed to contain a painting of a woman by Henri Matisse which belonged to Paris-based Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg, Focus said.

Customs investigators made the sensational find in 2011 after a 76-year-old man traveling by train from Zurich to Munich aroused suspicion at the border when he was found carrying a large, albeit legal, amount of cash.

The man was Cornelius Gurlitt, son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who was a specialist in the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Hildebrand Gurlitt to sell abroad the “degenerate art” to try and generate cash for the state. He also bought art from Jewish dealers forced to sell.

After the war he persuaded the Americans that, as he had a Jewish grandmother, he had also been persecuted. He continued working as an art dealer and died in a traffic accident in 1956.



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