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November 4, 2013

Hundreds of artworks by Picasso, Chagall, others may have been seized by Nazis

BERLIN — A Berlin art historian is helping prosecutors investigate a trove of 1,500 artworks that may have seized by the Nazis, which has been found in Munich.

Berlin Free University said in an e-mailed statement Monday that the inquiry is led by Meike Hoffmann of its degenerate art research unit.

The artworks, estimated to be worth 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) if confirmed, were found in a squalid Munich apartment after a random check on an elderly man traveling from Switzerland to Munich by authorities cracking down on money- laundering prompted further investigation, according to a report in the German magazine Focus. The raid took place in secret two years ago, according to magazine, which didn't say how it obtained the information.

"This is extraordinarily significant, if confirmed," Monika Tatzkow, a provenance researcher and author of several books on Nazi-looted art, said in an interview from Berlin Monday. "The number of works is overwhelming. It shows that a lot of time has to pass for some of this art to emerge from shady sources."

German customs officials recovered about 1,500 works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Marc Chagall long thought lost or destroyed, Focus said. The German government said it a statement Monday that it was aware of the case.

"Dr. Hoffmann has been assigned with the task of identifying the works by the Augsburg prosecutor," the release said. "This is an ongoing investigation and we ask for your understanding that the scholar at the Free University can give no information at this time," it said.

The investigators unearthed the paintings, sketches and prints, which were buried among outdated packets of food and rubbish, two years ago in the apartment of a man reported to be the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a prominent art dealer in the 1930s and 1940s with ties to the Nazis, according to Focus report.

Customs authorities in Munich and prosecutors in the city of Augsburg declined to comment on the report, citing confidentiality rules. Berlin art historian Meike Hoffmann is trying to establish the origin and value of the works, Focus reported. Hoffmann couldn't be reached for comment.

"As important a story is why have the Bavarian authorities been sitting on them for two years," said Anne Webber, co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London-based organization which helps families recover art seized by the Nazis. "Bavaria needs to publish a list of these works as soon as possible."

The works include a painting titled "Portrait of a Lady" by Henri Matisse that once belonged to Jewish art collector Paul Rosenberg, Focus said.

Rosenberg, whose granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, the estranged wife of former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was forced to leave his collection behind when he fled the Nazis, Focus said. Gurlitt kept the artworks and sold some as a source of income over the years, the magazine reported.

Works by Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Liebermann and Albrecht Duerer were also discovered in the raid, it said.

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