According a report in today’s New York Times priceless and wholly unknown works by Henri Matisse, Otto Dix and a host of other major 20th-century artists formed part of a collection of some 1,400 works of art confiscated or sold under the Nazis and discovered last year when customs officials investigated an elderly man for tax evasion, officials and an art historian said Tuesday.
The Times report went on to say, Meike Hoffmann, an art historian at an institute of the Berlin Free University who has been assigned to examine the spectacular find, said the hundreds of works at the Munich apartment of the man, identified as Cornelius Gurlitt, spanned from the 16th century into the 20th century.
“All these paintings and prints are in a very good condition,” Ms. Hoffmann said, explaining that the works were somewhat dirty, but otherwise in museum condition. Research is continuing, she said, and it is impossible to put a value on the works. “Of course, it is of a very high value for art historians,” she said.
In addition to the works of Matisse and Dix, the trove includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the German artists Max Beckmann, Max Liebermann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Carl Spitzweg, said Siegfried Klöble, the head of the Munich customs office, which oversaw the operation to recover the art.
Ms. Hoffmann showed slides of some of the works, including what she said was a haunting and previously unknown self-portrait of Dix, dating probably from 1919, a period right after World War I in which Dix, a German artist, painted little.
A Matisse portrait of a woman was also previously unknown, she said, dating it to the mid-1920s. A drawing by Canaletto and a stunning allegorical work by Chagall – also previously unknown – were among the treasures shown on slides and commented on briefly by Ms. Hoffmann.
She stressed that it was extremely difficult to nail down the origin and the ownership history of some of the works and that she had only begun initial research on some 500 of the works. Further research, she said, could take years.
There is, however, little doubt that at least some of the art discovered was part of an exhibit of what the Nazis termed “degenerate” art and which they put on show from 1937 to 1941 throughout Germany. Other works were probably among those that collectors — often Jews looking to flee the Third Reich — were forced to sell for rock-bottom prices, Ms. Hoffmann said.
The chief of the state prosecutor’s office, Reinhard Nemetz, said Mr. Gurlitt first attracted the attention of customs officials during a routine check on a train from Zurich to Munich on Sept. 22, 2010.
The newsmagazine Focus has reported that Mr. Gurlitt was carrying empty white envelopes and 9,000 euros, or about $12,140.
Mr. Klöble would not specify what attracted the authorities’ attention, but said they had reason enough to begin an investigation on suspicion of tax evasion that led the authorities to raid the Munich apartment some 17 months later.
Mr. Klöble and the head of the state prosecutor’s office in Augsburg, near Munich, said the joint action by customs officers and the police that resulted in the stunning discovery of the art occurred on Feb. 28, 2012, and not — as reported by Focus, which first disclosed the find on Sunday — in 2011.
It took the authorities three days to remove the artwork from the apartment, Mr. Klöble said. Specialists ensured that it was not damaged in transit to a storage facility where it has been held since.
They refused to give any indication of its location, citing security. Of the oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, lithographs and other prints, 120 were in frames and stored on a shelf. Another 1,285 works were unframed and stacked in a drawer, the authorities said.
Of the whereabouts of Mr. Gurlitt himself, nothing is known, the officials said. Mr. Nemetz said that he had been questioned after the paintings were found, and that investigation under the tax law was continuing. But there was no reason to detain him, and the authorities do not know where he is, Mr. Nemetz said.