Stolen Delacroix painting found in BelgradeA painting worth more than 600,000 euros ($825,000) by French master Eugene Delacroix, which was stolen last November from a central Parisian art gallery, has been found in Belgrade and repatriated, a source close to the case said Thursday.
A 50-year-old Serbian has been arrested in Paris on suspicion of having snatched the 1833 work entitled "The Arabs of Oran" from a gallery on the chic rue Saint-Honore, which runs parallel to the Louvre museum.
The man is also suspected of having stolen a crystal statue worth 40,000 euros from a Paris boutique of designer glassware Lalique a day before the Delacroix theft.
Delacroix, who lived from 1798 to 1863, was the most important member of the French Romantic movement.
Art Hostage Comments:
The truth of this matter is back in June 2013 the Delacroix painting was recovered in Belgrade by Special Elite French Police (The Brigade for the repression of Banditry (BRB)) liaising with Serbian Police. The Serbian Man was arrested in Paris September 2013 and remains in custody. Only now has the painting returned to France.
The Pink Panthers – radio review
• The Pink Panthers
Havana Marking meets safe cracker Mike in a beach bar on the coast of Montenegro; he's wearing a pink polo shirt. "I don't have a badge that says 'Pink Panther'," he laughs. But his stories are Marking's key to unlocking the secrets of a gang that rose from the chaos of wartime Yugoslavia to conducting headline-grabbing heists in Dubai, London, Tokyo, Paris and beyond. Through him, she meets Lela, now retired but once employed to scout out targeted shops, while playing at "being Madonna" with her own driver, designer wardrobe and hair stylist to seem credible. "I was extremely good-looking at the time, I had to look very powerful," she says, as the two explain how they lured a Spanish shop owner to fall in love with her, so the gang could bash through his wall into the jeweller's next door. "I didn't go to seduce him, but my very appearance contributed to his joy." Said shop owner gave Lela a job, despite the fact that she spoke no Spanish. Weeks of planning later, the gang made off with a safe filled with jewellery, money "and a fake penis … a dildo? I bet they didn't declare that to the police."
With all the high-octane thrills this documentary delivers, it's easy to forget that Marking is dealing with serious, hardened criminals – such as Green, the murderous Bosnian Serb paramilitary turned diamond dealer – and only touching on the work of detectives such as Jan Glassey, in Geneva. The Swiss intelligence officer had made it his life's mission to catch the thieves and Marking notes the stuffed pink panther toy hanging in a noose in the corner of his office. It was, he says, a joke present from his colleagues. One that probably serves as a reminder of how close he has come to completing the job: since 2007, 189 panthers have been arrested and jailed. Meanwhile, Mike admits the glamour and the protection once afforded to the criminals in the Balkans is slipping. He'll always be paranoid, he says, looking over his shoulder and taking tranquillisers to sleep: "It is a consequence of the job."
Stradivarius offered by thieves for £100 could fetch £2m at auction
The violin, then valued at a mere £1.2m, was snatched at a Pret a Manger cafe at Euston station, London, in November 2010. It had been played by the Korean-born, London-based musician Min-Jin Kym since she was a teenager. Its discovery this year after a long police investigation left her "on cloud nine" and "with an incredible feeling of elation", she said.
Kym spoke at the time of her "difficult journey" and sense of responsibility for the loss. After the theft she acquired another Stradivarius.
"The violin was a faithful friend for many years and I was devastated by the loss," she said on Monday. "Its recovery is an absolute relief and I am eager to hear the violin once more and I wish its next owner all the best of luck and success."
The instrument, found at an unnamed property in the West Midlands, was returned to insurers in the summer. Jason Price, director of the Tarisio auction house, said he was not at liberty to say who was the present owner. "Min-Jin has replaced it with something else, she had no other option. It is a 1705 Stradivarius, nine years later than this one but it is similar and also a great instrument."
Made in Cremona, Italy, Kym's former violin is one of about 600 surviving instruments made by Antonio Stradivari. Price said that although the instrument was not from Stradivari's golden period of around 1710-20, it was very similarly striking. "Pre-1700, Stradivari was quite experimental and innovative," he said. "He made some instruments of slightly longer body length and varied proportions of his violins, violas and cellos.
"This 1696 violin is, however, of normal proportions and is more or less the model Stradivari settled upon to use for the rest of his career. Interestingly, instruments from this pre-1700 period probably have more of Stradivari himself in them. In the later periods Stradivari was in his 70s and, although he was active and working, it is clear he had a very productive workshop, with his sons and others assisting in the output."
Price added: "The beauty of this violin is the wood used for the back. It is sensational maple. It is really glamorous, gorgeous stuff. The bridge was removed but that's of no consequence. The bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings and it is frequently changed over the lifetime of an instrument.
"This is an instrument very much designed to be a player's instrument. It deserves to be played on. It will probably go someone like Min-Jin, an emerging soloist or professional orchestra player or a chamber musician. It's rather amazing that these instruments survive for 300 years – when you think that a professional violinist has one under their chin for four hours a day and carries it with them by all means of transportation.
"It shows the care that musicians give their instruments that more of them don't go missing or get irreparably damaged. It is an extremely attractive violin and the sound is first-class."
Online bidding will start at £1m but the instrument could fetch more than £2m. "The reason I can imagine it going for much more than the more conservative price we have is that it is an extremely usable violin," said Price.
In 2011 John Maughan was jailed for four and a half years at Blackfriars crown court in London for the theft of Kym's violin. He and accomplices had tried to sell it in an internet cafe not far from Euston. Two teenagers were sentenced for their involvement.
British Transport police chased leads across Europe – one false trail involved an instrument in Bulgaria that turned out to be a replica made no more than a century ago – but are still investigating how it ended up where it did. They always believed the violin was so rare and distinctive that established dealers would recognise it as stolen property.
"The police used to call Min-Jin every Friday afternoon, which just shows the amount of care they showed. Their efforts to recover the violin went well beyond the call of duty," said Price, explaining why a portion of the proceeds and sales commission would go to authorities who helped recover it.
On the subject of the desirability of Kym's old violin, Price added: "Is it worth more as a result of being stolen? Probably not, but is sure adds colour and intrigue to the history of the instrument."
Bidding starts at £1 million. A portion of the proceeds and sales commission will benefit the authorities ;-) who were instrumental in recovering the violin.
Romania Picasso Thief Claims Stolen Artworks May Be Fakes
Radu Dogaru, who admitted to stealing the artworks, had an as-yet-unidentified accomplice working inside the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam who helped him enter the premises and avoid police patrols, attorney Catalin Dancu told reporters in Bucharest today. The museum won’t comment on “allegations of lawyers from suspects,” spokeswoman Sabine Parmentier said in an e-mailed response to a Bloomberg question.
“What serious person would have original paintings with a market value of 100 million euros exhibited in such a way?” Dancu said. “The answer is that they’re either irresponsible, in which case they have to pay, or the paintings were perfect copies and someone duped the insurance company.”
Insurer Aon Plc (AON) paid 17 million euros to Triton Foundation, which owned the artworks at the time of the theft, Dancu said in September. Judge Adrian Chitoiu said the admissions to the crime may reduce the defendants’’ sentences by a third.
The theft of works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Lucian Freud, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Meyer de Haan ranks among the most spectacular art heists of the last decades. The case has turned on whether any of the artworks still survive after Dogaru’s mother, Olga Dogaru, first confessed to burning all of them in her stove, only to withdraw her statement on July 22. She now claims that none were incinerated.
If Kunsthal and other Dutch authorities refuse to cooperate, Dogaru will hire lawyers to press charges against the museum and Rotterdam city council for neglectful management of the art works, Dancu said. Dogaru wouldn’t reveal the name of the museum employee who allegedly helped him and his accomplices enter the museum and on the night of the heist, Dancu said.
A scientific analysis of the ashes in Olga Dogaru’s stove showed they contained fragments of oil paintings, according to Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the Romanian museum that carried out the tests.
The stolen paintings belong to a private collection managed by the Triton Foundation, started by Rotterdam port entrepreneur Willem Cordia. The collection consists of about 250 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period 1860 to 1970.
The Billionaire, the Secretary, and the (Possibly) Stolen Monet
Not only that, but this particular Monet – full name: “Japanese Footbridge Over the Water-Lily Pond at Giverny” – comes with a uniquely scandalous backstory. Imelda Marcos, the one-time First Lady of the Philippines, whose profligate spending on the country’s dime ended when her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was forced into exile in 1986, once owned it. And her former secretary has been accused of stealing it from her.
Now the 1899 painting is a key piece of evidence in the criminal trial of that ex-aide, Vilma Bautisa, which began in New York City in mid-October. The 74-year-old Bautista has been charged with conspiracy after she and two nephews tried to sell the painting (and several others from Marcos’ New York City townhouse) in 2010 after the former first lady’s properties were seized by the new Philippine government in the 1980s. Bautista faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of the charges.
“It’s a simple story of greed, opportunism and fraud,” Garrett Lynch, an assistant district attorney, said to the jury at Bautista's trial, according to The New York Times.
Speaking of greed, Marcos – whose spending habits while First Lady are the stuff of legend: a closet with 3,000 pairs of designer shoes, $3-millon-in-a-day shopping sprees in New York, artwork by a range of old masters, and even several Manhattan skyscrapers including the Woolworth Building – remains active in Philippine politics and is now serving as a member of the country’s House of Representatives.
Howard, for his part, was a good faith purchaser of the painting and has no part in Bautista's trail.
Valuable work of art to be ‘stolen’ in front of TV audience
Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/361320#ixzz2jPPfBQri
Museum-quality antiques stolen during home burglary in south Houston
According to Crime Stoppers, at least one suspect broke the glass back door, entered the house and stole several museum-quality antiques. Authorities did not provide an estimated value of the items taken.
Now detectives are hoping to get a tip that could lead them to the suspect(s) and recover the stolen antiques.
SAUGERTIES — A Wawarsing man accused of peddling stolen antiques to local pawnshops has been arrested, Saugerties police say.
No charges for school board member in Buffalo Thunder art theft
Brett Chomer’s 4-foot-long, 100- to 150-pound bronze lizard with a turquoise patina, valued at between $3,500 and $5,000, was reported missing from its display just outside the resort’s Red Sage bar and restaurant Sept. 27.
Vienna museum director quits in Nazi looted art row
The director of
Vienna's Leopold Museum, home to extensive collections of work by
Austrian artists such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, has quit in a
row over Nazi-looted art.
Tobias Natter said he
could no longer stay at the museum after some of its most senior staff
joined a controversial new foundation associated with Klimt's
illegitimate son, film director Gustav Ucicky, whose works included Nazi
Klimt Foundation has 14 Klimt works - four oil paintings and 10
drawings. The ownership of at least one, a portrait of Gertrude Loew,
has been disputed for years by her heirs, who say it was stolen by the
Nazis and want it back.
The Leopold Museum has recently tried
to open a new chapter in its history after fighting numerous claims and
in some cases settling financially with heirs of the previous Jewish
owners of art works stolen after Hitler's 1938 annexation of Austria.
were sold at auction in Vienna after 1945 and then bought from their
new owners by Rudolf Leopold, who began amassing his collection in the
1950s and resisted restitution claims until his death in 2010.
museum last year settled a claim over Schiele's "Houses by the Sea"
with the heirs of Jenny Steiner, a silk factory owner whose valuable art
collection was seized by the Nazi regime in 1938.
a sad truth that for years the museum was known worldwide as being
synonymous with looted art. Why should we besmirch ourselves with this
theme again?" asked Natter in a telephone interview with Reuters.
was director of the museum for just two years. His shows included
"Naked Men", an exhibition which invited nudists to its opening night
and became so popular that it later moved to Paris.
historian Sophie Lillie, who documented the fates of 148 collections
seized by the Nazis from Viennese Jews in her 2003 book "Was einmal war"
(What once was), said Natter was to be commended for his decision to
"I think the
Leopold Museum has tried to some extent to resolve its problems because
there was such media pressure on them. The spotlight is really on them
now," she told Reuters.
researchers are working through the museum's 6,000-strong collection to
establish the provenance of as many pieces as possible, a museum
Austrian state transferred the Leopold collection, which it had bought,
into a private foundation in 1994 and helped build the museum to house
Nazi regime systematically plundered hundreds of thousands of art works
from museums and individuals. An unknown number of works is still
missing, and museums worldwide have held investigations into the
provenance of their exhibits.
Dutch commission investigating the looting of property in the
Netherlands during the Nazi era said on Tuesday said it had identified
139 works of art with problematic origins in Amsterdam's famed
laws on looted art restitution are now being put to the test by the case
of Klimt's monumental 1902 Beethoven Frieze, which pays homage to the
German composer and is on permanent display in Vienna's Secession
The heirs of its former owner Erich Lederer, whose Jewish family fled when Nazi Germany
annexed Austria in 1938, may get the frieze back if a review supports
their claim that he was forced to sell it to the Austrian state at a
Klimt foundation has commissioned independent research into the
provenance of its works, and says the investigation of the Gertrude Loew
portrait will finish by the end of the year.
139 Artworks Stolen From Jews During WWII Found in Dutch Museums
"These objects are either thought or known to have been looted, confiscated or sold under duress," Siebe Weide, director of the Netherlands Museums Association, said. Among the paintings the Nazi included in their loot were from painting masters Matisse, Klee and Kandinsky.
Coinciding with the launch of the Web site http://www.musealeverwervingen.nl that details the artwork pieces and their histories, the aim is eventually to contact family members or heirs of the original owners.
Returning the precious artworks to their rightful owners is "both a moral obligation and one that we have taken upon ourselves," Mr Weide said.
The investigation probed a total of 162 Dutch museums. The 139 questionable objects came from 41 different museums. Out of the total, only 61 so far have been linked to their original owners.
Among the potentially questionable artworks are:
- Kandinsky's "View of Murnau with Church"
- Kandinsky's "Painting with Houses"
- Matisse's 1921 "Odalisque"
"It was no easy task, but our museums always realised the importance of the research. The fact that much time has passed since the end of the Second World War should not be a reason not to do the research."
"The Museum Acquisitions research from 1933 gets to the heart of what museums do: studying their collections and telling the story to the public," Mr Weide said.
Heirs Win Back Nazi-Looted Art, Lose Others in AuctionThe heirs of Max Stern, a Jewish art dealer who fled Nazi Germany after he was forced to close his gallery, today announced the recovery of a painting he lost 76 years ago.
That is only half the story. They may have lost track of two more pictures that Stern was forced to sell for good.
Andreas Achenbach’s 1837 landscape was offered at Van Ham Fine Art Auctions in Cologne in May. Encouraged by Van Ham, the consignor agreed to negotiate with Stern’s estate. The painting was presented in a ceremony at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin.
Two other pictures in the Van Ham catalog of the May event also belonged to Stern, yet the consignor of these refused to negotiate with the dealer’s heirs.
He said his grandfather bought the works legally at the 1937 Nazi-forced auction of Stern’s gallery, according to a person familiar with his letter to Van Ham.
“This kind of situation happens frequently,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “Heirs are often dependent on the goodwill of private owners. Some consignors may not want to deal with what their grandparents did.”
Van Ham returned the two paintings to the consignor and declined to reveal his name to Stern’s heirs, leaving them with little hope of recovering the artworks.
‘Reluctant’ TradeThe Stern estate’s experience spotlights the difficulties heirs face in tracing and reclaiming the countless Nazi-looted artworks that have vanished into German private collections, even when they are offered for sale by auction houses.
“Members of the art trade have been reluctant to work with claimants on the return of Holocaust-era works,” Clarence Epstein, director of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote in an e-mail.
While museums are morally accountable under international principles endorsed by the German government on returning Nazi-looted art, German art dealers and auction houses often pursue strictly legal arguments. Under German law, the statute of limitations for theft expires after 30 years, and claimants have little hope of winning title in court.
Max Stern took over his father’s Dusseldorf art gallery in 1934, a year after the Nazis seized power. Stern was informed in 1935 that as a Jew, he could no longer practice his profession.
After the forced sale of his gallery’s contents at the Lempertz auction house in Cologne -- for which Stern never got the revenue -- he fled to London in 1938, later making his way to Canada. He settled in Montreal and became one of the most important art dealers in Canada.
Tracing WorksHe died in 1987 without children, leaving the bulk of his estate to three universities: Concordia and McGill in Montreal and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2002, the colleges began a campaign to recover the lost art, creating the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, administered by Concordia.
The two pictures returned to Van Ham’s consignor -- “Canal in Dordrecht” by Hans Herrmann and Jakob Becker’s “Children’s Festival in the Country” -- are among about 400 Stern’s heirs are trying to trace.
They have recovered 11 so far. Epstein says most of the rest are probably in German private collections.
“There are still thousands and thousands of works of looted art that have not been returned and the art trade continues to sell disputed works,” Webber said.
‘Powerless Claimants’“The claimants are powerless in the process. The balance of power is in favor of the possessor of the art.”
While Sotheby’s (BID) and Christie’s International have teams of researchers checking provenance, the smaller German houses often rely uniquely on the services of the Art Loss Register, a London-based company with a database of stolen art.
Yet all three Stern paintings in the Van Ham catalog for the May sale have been listed since July 2005 with photographs on lostart.de, the German government’s database of art missing after World War II, according to Michael Franz, who administrates the website.
Van Ham submits all catalogs to the Art Loss Register, Anne Srikiow, a spokeswoman for Van Ham, said by telephone from Cologne. If there is any reason to be skeptical about a work’s provenance, the company conducts some basic checks, she said.
“We can’t do it with every piece,” Srikiow said. It is not company policy to routinely check lostart.de, she said.
In contrast, Sotheby’s has four provenance researchers, said Richard Aronowitz, who heads the London research team. They check the painting itself, the company’s own database built up over 15 years, the artist’s catalogue raisonne and the main lists of lost works published by national governments.
Loss RegisterThe findings are sent to the Art Loss Register, which runs a second check.
“Of say 5,000 lots that we examine a year, 50 to 60 may raise concerns serious enough that we have to send someone to investigate in archives abroad,” Aronowitz said. “Out of those maybe 10 to 15 will be unrestituted Nazi-looted artworks.”
When disputed works come up at auction in Germany, claimants may not be able to prevent a sale even if they succeed in tracking down the work.
In 2010, heirs of the painter Max Liebermann failed to prevent the sale of a sketch by the artist at the Hamburg auction house Hauswedell & Nolte.
The heirs’ lawyer wrote requesting more research before the sale of the sketch, which he said was probably seized by the Nazis or sold under duress. The auction house argued that the consignor had proven legal title and said the claim was unfounded.
Return to ConsignorWhere Sotheby’s keeps hold of disputed pieces to encourage consignors to negotiate, Van Ham returns them to the consignor. Srikiow said German data protection laws prevent the company from passing the names of consignors of Nazi-looted art to claimants.
For foreign buyers, purchasing prewar art at auction in Germany is a case of “caveat emptor,” said Christian Bauschke, a lawyer at Bauschke Braeuer in Berlin.
Bauschke represents the New York dealer Richard Feigen, who in 2009 agreed to return a picture to the Max Stern estate that he had purchased from the Kunsthaus Lempertz nine years earlier. The work was seized by U.S. customs. He is now seeking compensation from the auction house in a lawsuit scheduled to be heard by a court in Cologne in December.
Art CrimeThe German police also can take action, Rene Allonge, the officer who leads the art crime department of the Berlin force said by telephone.
“In cases of theft and confiscation dating back to World War II, the criminal act is too far in the past, the perpetrator is probably dead, and the statutes of limitations have expired,” Allonge said. “But even in such cases, it is possible to open an investigation on suspicion of handling stolen goods.”
Proving that the suspect was aware the object in question was stolen can be very difficult, Allonge said.
“But police can search an auction house’s premises and expose the identity of the consignor,” he said. That can help heirs pursue title in civil courts, he said.
Modernist art haul, 'looted by Nazis', recovered by German police
The artworks, which could be worth as much as €1bn (£860m), are said to include pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde. They had been considered lost until now, according to a report in the German news weekly Focus.
The works, which would originally have been confiscated as "degenerate art" by the Nazis or taken from Jewish collectors in the 1930s and 1940s, had made their way into the hands of a German art collector, Hildebrand Gurlitt. When Gurlitt died, the artworks were passed down to his son, Cornelius – all without the knowledge of the authorities.
Gurlitt, who had not previously been on the radar of the police, attracted the attention of the customs authorities only after a random cash check during a train journey from Switzerland to Munich in 2010, according to Focus. Further police investigations led to a raid on Gurlitt's flat in Schwabing in spring 2011. Police discovered a vast collection of masterpieces by some of the world's greatest artists.
The artworks are thought to have been stored amid juice cartons and tins of food on homemade shelves in a darkened room. Since their seizure, they have been stored in a safe customs building outside Munich, where the art historian Meike Hoffmann, from Berlin university, has been assessing their precise origin and value. When contacted by the Guardian, Hoffmann said she was under an obligation to maintain secrecy and would not be able to comment on the Focus report until Monday.
According to Focus, Cornelius Gurlitt, described as a loner, may have kept himself in pocket over the years by occasionally selling the odd artwork. Several of the frames in the flat were empty. He is thought to have sold at least one picture – a painting called Lion Tamer by Beckmann – since his flat was first raided by the police. On 2 December 2011, the painting was sold for €864,000 at an auction house in Cologne.
At least 300 paintings in the collection are thought to belong to a body of about 16,000 works once declared "degenerate art". Others are suspected to have been owned by fleeing Jewish collectors who had to leave belongings behind.
One Matisse painting used to belong to a French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, whose granddaughter is Anne Sinclair, the TV journalist who is also the ex-wife of the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Rosenberg was renowned for representing Picasso, Georges Braque and Matisse.
Sinclair and her family have been campaigning for the return of looted Nazi treasures for years. "We are not willing to forget, or let it go," Marianne Rosenberg, another granddaughter, told the New York Times in April. "I think of it as a crusade."
Gwendolen Webster, an art historian who has spent time studying works from the Nazis' "degenerate art" collection, told the Guardian the significance of the find was "absolutely staggering for historians" but opened a legal can of worms.
One of the reasons why German customs may have been sitting on their find for such a long time is that they can expect a huge number of claims for restitution from around the world, with all the diplomatic difficulties that entails.
Descendants of Jewish collectors who were blackmailed or simply robbed of their works by the Nazis may now be able to legally claim ownership of some of the works in Munich.
The looted art trove may help to shed light on one of the more obscure chapters in Nazi Germany's history. Modernist art was banned soon after the Nazis came to power, on the ground that it was "un-German" or Jewish Bolshevist in nature.
From spring 1933 right up to the start of the war, exhibitions of the art toured the country, showcasing works that are now considered classics of expressionism, surrealism, cubism and Dada. Records of which artworks the authorities had looted from where are incomplete. "It was complete anarchy," says Webster.
Hildebrand Gurlitt, who had been a museum director in Zwickau until Hitler came to power, lost his post because he was half Jewish, but was later commissioned by the Nazis to sell works abroad. The discovered loot may show that Gurlitt in fact collected many of the artworks himself and managed to keep them throughout the war.
After the war, allied troops designated Gurlitt a victim of Nazi crimes. He reportedly said he had helped many Jewish Germans to fund their flight into exile, and that his entire art collection had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.
Does the Munich hoard turn the story of art and the Nazis on its head?
Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – the masters of modernism, including giants of Germany's own avant garde, were shown in this exhibition as deviant, decadent practitioners of so-called Degenerate Art – "Entartete Kunst". Sections of the show had titles such as "Total Madness", "The Prostitute Raised to a Moral Ideal", "The Negroisation of Art". Modern art was interpreted in the catalogue as a conspiracy by Russian Bolsheviks and Jewish dealers to destroy European culture. The admiration for African carvings that had so fired Picasso and other artists was taken as proof of modern art's racial degeneracy.
Vile stuff – but the Nazi attitude to modern art may have been radically misunderstood. An amazing discovery in 21st-century Munich turns the story of art and the Nazis on its head.
Cornelius Gurlitt's flat looks meagre in photographs. It is located in an apartment block in Munich that, from the outside, appears to have seen better days. Yet in that flat lay secrets of the Third Reich only now accidentally uncovered. Intrigued by Gurlitt's lack of German identity documents and odd behaviour while crossing the border on a trip to Switzerland, police raided his home and found a hoard of more than 1,500 works of art including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Otto Dix and Oskar Kokoschka. The understandably reclusive Gurlitt turned out to be the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who played a key role in the Nazi roundup of "degenerate art". Although half-Jewish, and the cousin of the "degenerate" composer Manfred Gurlitt, the Nazis considered him a useful expert. This is not just any haul of stolen goods: it may turn out to be one the most important recoveries of lost art ever. For it takes us to the heart of the cultural policies and crimes of the Third Reich.
It raises massive questions about the fate of art in and after the second world war. As the allies entered Germany in the last phase of the war they took with them experts, nicknamed the "monuments men", whose job was to find out where the Nazis had stashed looted works of art. For it was not just modern art the Nazis abused. All over Europe, they seized the best masterpieces from the finest museums. Many of these, including such treasures as Titian's Danae and Van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, were found stashed in mountain tunnels and mines. Others, including many of the works of art shown in the Degenerate Art exhibit, are believed lost for ever. Paintings such as Van Gogh's The Painter on his Way to Work and 14 masterpieces by Gustav Klimt are written off as destroyed. But is it possible a Nazi network preserved a secret world of stolen art after 1945? Is it even possible such art was used to fund neo-Nazi activities or maintain war criminals in quiet comfort?
To put it another way: were Hildebrand Gurlitt and his son unique, or is the find in Munich a clue to some larger network of Nazi art hoarders sitting on secret treasures all this time in postwar Europe, living off occasional covert sales of the Picassos that they keep among the canned foods in their anonymous flats?
One thing is certain: this story comes from the dark heart of Nazi Europe. Munich was Hitler's art capital. As a young man, famously, he wanted to be an artist. He wasted an inheritance trying to get an art education in Vienna. While Klimt was creating modern art there, Hitler was going to the opera to hear Wagner (conducted by the modernist Gustav Mahler), and soon eking a living painting drab topographic scenes. Eventually he left for Munich, where he survived as a hack painter of typical German scenery until the first world war gave him a new life as a soldier. Hitler loved Munich, and when he came to power lavished money on its art scene. The city's expressionist painters were in trouble. But while Degenerate Art pilloried them, in 1938 Hitler opened a huge exhibition of "proper" German art at the newly built House of German Art, a grand neo-classical temple to the art of a new, fascist Europe. Where the year before thousands had flocked to see the art they were told to hate, far fewer went to see Nazi-favoured art.
This is where the cliches start. It is conventional to contrast the avant-garde art the Nazis maligned with the traditionalism and conservatism of the art they admired. But the National Socialist nightmare was not "conservative". It was, in its own way, horribly modern – it imagined a different, perverted vision of modernity. The House of German Art still survives in Munich. Today it is used as an alternative arts centre. Video and installation look subversively great in its grand icy halls. You wouldn't call these rooms old-fashioned. Rather they have a chilly neo-classical hauteur that speaks of sublime ambition. This is the neo-classical modern art of Nazism that can still be seen in Leni Riefenstahl's terrifying films – some of the most disturbingly beautiful ever made – and the designs of Hitler's architects Paul Troost and Albert Speer.
Hitler did not hate art – he loved it. Other leading Nazis just saw it as money. Goering, greedy and corrupt, amassed art because it symbolised wealth and power. Munich was at the centre of the regime's cultural pretensions. The Gurlitt hoard is a survival of the Nazis' strange and ambivalent attitude to art, from Hitler's aesthetic New Order to the simple philistine greed that probably motivated most of their art theft.
Gurlitt's cache reveals that many assumptions about the Nazis and art are simply untrue. The Degenerate Art exhibition was real enough – but did it really mean the Nazis hated modern art? It is because we take this for granted that no one has been searching for lost "degenerate" works such as those in the flat in Munich. Some works from the Entartete Kunst exhibition, many seized from once-progressive German museums, were sold abroad afterwards. Others have vanished. As the war began and Nazi racial policies became ever more explicit, more modern and pre-modern works were seized or bought for a pittance from Jewish owners. Much was destroyed. Or was it?
The allies tend to blame themselves for art lost in Germany in the 1940s. Almost every major German city was bombed by Britain and the US during the second world war. Firestorms ravaged museums and art stores as well as killing thousands of civilians. "Bomber" Harris, Britain's Bomber Command mastermind who insisted this was the way to win the war, was apparently responsible for burning paintings such as Van Gogh's Painter on the Way to Work and Caravaggio's first version of St Matthew, as well as his portrait of a courtesan.
Perhaps the single most significant fact that has so far come out about Hildebrand Gurlitt is that he claimed his collection of looted art was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden. So it was the allies who burned it. If he lied so easily about that, what about other Nazi-owned art that supposedly vanished in wartime air raids?
The massive destruction the Nazis brought down on Germany created chaos in 1945. As the "monuments men" were seeking out stolen art treasures in Alpine mines, it seems Gurlitt was carefully and quietly preserving his personal hoard.
The reason he got away with it is that he had grabbed so many modernist works. Ever since 1937, it has been assumed that "degenerate art" was either sold abroad or destroyed. The "monuments men" went searching for Titians, not Picassos. But the Munich hoard proves the naivety of this assumption. Even in the mind of Hitler, modern art was bizarrely fascinating. You do not put on an exhibition of something you do not want to look at. In some strange way the Nazis needed modern art, as a demonic image of their nightmares. The Degenerate Art exhibition is, after all, the biggest backhanded compliment ever paid to the avant garde. Many people think art has no influence on the world. Hitler knew it did. The old saw that he hated modernism is just too simple. He loved to hate it. What you love to hate, you want to keep, somewhere, if only as a freakshow curiosity.
Other Nazis simply went along with Hitler's taste in public but did not really know what the would-be artist in him was talking about. In Mussolini's Italy, the Futurist movement was cosy with fascism. There was no reason – Italy proved – that fascists needed to spurn modernism. Some German modern artists, notably Nolde, were themselves sympathetic to the far right.
Then there was greed. In the end, the National Socialists were thugs, criminals and murderers. The idea that most of them believed deeply in ideological discriminations about art is not that plausible. For men like Gurlitt, modern art made a good stash. He and his son sat on the hoard while his claim that it was lost in a firestorm was taken at face value.
Now the books on Nazi loot need to be reopened. It seems only too possible that other Gurlitts hid away other art treasures in the chaos of defeat.
In one of the last photographs ever taken of Adolf Hitler he is in the bunker in Berlin contemplating Albert Speer's design for a new art capital to be built at Linz. Much as he loved Munich, this city was closer to his childhood home. Its massive new museum was to have contained all the art treasures of conquered Europe.
While Hitler doted on his cultural fantasies, paintings were vanishing into fruit cellars and attics. It was so easy to write them off in the Führer's Götterdämmerung.
Read Jonathan Jones on the masterpieces that are missing in action