Among the many tragedies of World War II was the damage to world culture. Hundreds of classic works of art, from Matisse to Picasso, were thought to have been stolen and destroyed by the Nazis. Except for the 1,500 paintings that authorities have just revealed they found in Munich in 2011.
Essentially, Swiss and German authorities were following up on a hunch. Hildebrandt Gurlitt was a man who was basically invisible; no government ID, no health insurance, no pension. When his apartment was raided in 2011, even the authorities were stunned to find just what he was hiding:
The collection apparently came from Gurlitt’s father, Cornelius, who was an art historian when the Nazis seized power in the ’30s. He reportedly acquired hundreds of paintings sold for virtually nothing by Jews attempting to escape Nazi rule, while others are believed to have been seized outright. Many of the works were deemed as “degenerative” by the Nazis and were thought to have been destroyed. They clearly weren’t, though, and were instead either found by or given to Hildebrandt Gurlitt, who appears to have made a living by selling low-profile pieces from the extensive collection
The collection of stolen art is thought to be valued at $1.35 billion, and most of the paintings Gurlitt was hiding had long thought lost. It’s got everything from the aforementioned Matisse and Picasso to a litany of German artists from before World War II who essentially, until now, only existed in a handful of photographs and the few paintings that escaped the torch.
One of the problems is that Gurlitt has been, for years, hocking smaller pieces from more obscure artists, meaning that we don’t know the exact size of the cache and we don’t know where some of these pieces happen to be. The German authorities are still tracking down who owns what in the massive collection, and what might have been sold. But either way, a major piece of human cultural history has finally been restored.