German police find masterpieces by Picasso and others thought lost in World War II

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Over the weekend in Germany news broke about an enormous trove of modernist paintings found in an apartment in Munich. Police apparently first discovered the painting two years ago all crammed in a darkened room between canned food and empty juice cartons. The 1,500 pieces include works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, masterpieces thought to have been lost or looted during WWII. Gwendolen Webster is an art historian in Aachen, Germany. She's anxiously waiting to find out more.

Gwendolen Webster: Very little has been revealed of the artworks on show, but it is obviously from the modern period from the 20th century, expressionists, cubists, certainly the cream of early 20th century art anyway.

Werman: So the German magazine that broke the story overnight said the artworks were found by chance when tax authorities investigated the reclusive son of the late and once, I guess, pretty well known art dealer named Hildebrant Gurlitt in Munich. Who was Gurlitt?

Webster: It's a very strange story. Gurlitt was actually one-eight Jewish. He was a museum director in the town of [inaudible 01:04] in the very east of Germany. For his museum he collected contemporary art at the time, particularly expressionists. Gurlitt moved to Hamburg and it seems to have been his expertise that attracted the Nazis to him. And he was asked to investigate artworks that would be suitable for Hitler's personal collection in Linz, the so-called Führermuseum. So he was very much involved in the wheelings and dealings of the art world under the Nazis, and after the war he managed to escape because he claims he'd been a victim of the Nazis, so they let him off.

Werman: So you call this progressive art, but I gather at least 300 paintings in the collection are thought to belong to a body of about 16,000 works once declared degenerate art.

Webster: Now what the Nazis described as degenerate art was a very sort of arbitrary thing altogether. For instance, the works of Nolde were described as degenerate and Nolde was a member of the Nazi party and objected to this very strongly. So degenerate really was somebody that was Jewish, somebody that wasn't, but this degenerate art, whatever it was, they didn't like. It was displayed in Germany from 19323 onwards in a series of exhibitions. Some of it was then taken out and burned. Some of it was sold to private collectors. This is really an enormous number of works that everybody expected to be thrown into the flames, 300 works that have obviously been rescued for whatever reason by Gurlitt.

Werman: If this art was about to be burned, is Gurlitt kind of the savior of these works?

Webster: I would hesitate to call him the savior, but it may well be that he rescued works of art that were destined for the bonfires...either to sell them off to private dealers or for his own collection.

Werman: What happens with this art now?

Webster: That's a very good question. You've got to decide who owns it and there's gonna be claims of restitution. This is a huge can of worms and I think that's why the discovery of this hoard of paintings was covered up.

Werman: When you first heard this story, Gwendolen, knowing all that you know about that era and Nazis looting art, what question did you really first want answered?

Webster: I'm dying to see what these works were, who they were by and where they came from. My second reaction was perhaps a more measured one, it is that we also always ought to borne against the dangers of fascism. I've talked to collectors in Germany here who lost everything under the Nazis, and see pictures in museums in New York or London that they know were theirs and have no way of proving it. And the appalling crimes that were committed under fascism can never be righting these wrongs really, however much money there is or restitution.

Werman: Gwendolen Webster, art historian in Aachen, Germany, thanks for talking with us.

Webster: Thank you.