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The mystery of stolen art discovered in Munich

Authorities in Munich in Nov-ember 2013 revealed that they had stumbled upon over 1,500 paintings, drawings, and etchings by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, and Klee. The artworks were stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and were hidden away in what was described as a squalid apartment. The story is still developing, but early estimates appraise the work to be valued at over $1.35 billion, making this the most extensive haul in art-theft history.

Several years ago in 2010, an unassuming 80-year-old German man caught the attention of authorities when customs officials searched his bags as he traveled by train between Switzerland and Germany. He had an unusual amount of cash and, though it was legal to travel with this much money, the police decided to keep him under surveillance. Finally, the police were granted permission in 2011 to search the man’s apartment.

A dark story has unraveled since the discovery was made over two years ago. The elderly man’s father is now revealed as a well-known art dealer before World War II. During the war, he used his contacts to sell artwork, art that may have been included in the notorious 1937 Nazi-curated Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, which displayed works looted from museums. Other theories suggest that the artworks were not from this exhibition, and are simply a collection stolen from French Jews during the occupation.

In any case, it appears that the dealer kept more of the stolen art than he sold. Indeed, the cover-up extends through decades. The dealer stated that the works had all been destroyed when his home burned during the Dresden firebombing on Feb. 13, 1945. Instead, the works were inherited by the dealer’s son, who allegedly sold them off slowly over the years to foreign collectors to maintain what he’d hoped to be a steady stream of income that would remain under the radar of the authorities.

The art dealer died in a car accident in 1956, and in the early sixties, his widow testified that the art was destroyed during the Dresden fire. This false statement will likely forfeit any rights the now-80-year-old son may have in terms of ownership.

Many are asking why the German authorities waited two years to reveal this astonishing discovery. As the story unfolds, it has been suggested that considerations regarding restitution delayed the public announcement about the theft. Also, the investigation may reveal more art hidden in other secret locations. A list of works has not yet been published, nor have any photographs.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com

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