In 1945, a group of soldiers, museum curators, and art historians set about to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis before and during World War II. The exploits of this group are now the subject of a film starring George Clooney called “The Monuments Men.” At the end of the war, the Monuments Men discovered a cache of 115 paintings, 19 drawings, and six crates of objects in the possession of an art dealer named Hildebrandt Gurlitt in Hamburg. For five years, Gurlitt insisted that the artwork rightfully belonged to him. Finally, in 1950, the leader of the Monuments Men, an American officer named Theodore Heinreich, signed over the artwork to Gurlitt. After his death in 1956, the paintings became the property of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, who had always insisted they belong to him. In February 2012, authorities discovered the paintings in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment. The reclusive Gurlitt was nowhere to be found.
These works are the largest trove of lost masterpieces ever recovered since the end of World War II. The U.S. State Department now believes that at least eight of the paintings returned to Gurlitt in 1950 had most certainly been stolen by the Nazis in 1944. These paintings, all of which are by the French painter Michel Georges-Michel, were stored by the Nazis in the Jeu de Paumel museum after they took over Paris. Other paintings in Gurlitt’s collection include works by Marc Chagall, Canaletto, Courbet, Matisse, Otto Dix, Max Beckman, Pablo Picasso, and Toulousse LaTrec.
The paintings are in good condition and have been moved to an undisclosed location. Their estimated value is 1 billion Euros. Finding the legal owners of these priceless treasures is a daunting process without the proper documentation. Most art experts believe that many of the true owners may never be found. The police are concerned that the man who hid them in his cluttered apartment, Cornelius Gurlitt, may never be found either.