Rotting Food, $1 Billion Art Found in Flat

Remember that time you casually stumbled upon 1,500 paintings by modern masters behind a pile of rotting food? No? Because that's a story that a few investigators in Germany are going to be able to tell their grandkids (or use as an amazing pick-up line at the local biergarten). Now, a hoard of paintings by masters like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse have been discovered in a German flat belonging to the son of a prominent Nazi. The paintings carry with them not only immeasurable cultural wealth, but an estimated $1.35 billion in collective value.

Well, this is a story that needs explaining, right? In the spring of 2011, government officials pulled aside an elderly German man traveling from Switzerland to Munich for a random check. Something was amiss with his taxes, they determined, and launched a money laundering probe against him. Officials then obtained a search warrant and raided his "squalid" Munich flat, eventually ridding it of its furnishings. Which is when they came upon the artistic treasure trove... buried beneath expired food packets.

The paintings, which had been seized by the Nazis as "degenerate" or left behind when Jewish collectors fled the country, were acquired by one of Hitler's most important art collectors, Hildebrant Gurlitt, and kept under wraps — literally — for decades after by Gurlitt's son Cornelius. The Nazis really hated modern art, decrying it as the product of Jewish artists or for otherwise being "un-German" in nature. During the course of their regime, it's estimated they seized more than 16,000 works, many of which have yet to surface again.

Throughout the years, Gurlitt had sold a painting off here and there, and lived off the proceeds. Largely a recluse and unknown in the public sphere — he was a "man who didn't exist," according to one German official — he played dragon to his den of remaining masterpieces.

However, given the government's involvement in the haul's recovery, some are protesting that the paintings have, until now, still remained secret — especially considering that 200 of the paintings have an international warrant out for their return.

“As important a story as this is, why have the Bavarian authorities been sitting on them for two years?" said co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe Anne Webber, who helps people reclaim Nazi-looted works. “Bavaria needs to publish a list of these works as soon as possible.”

Although the German government is supplying experts to help with identification efforts, further details of the case are hush-hush until Tuesday, when an official announcement is expected. If officially confirmed, it will be one of the largest recoveries of "degenerate" art to date.

"I think it's the biggest single find of Holocaust pictures that there's been for years, but it's still a tiny fraction of the total number of pictures that we're looking for," chairman of the London-based Art Loss Register, which runs an international database of stolen and missing works, Julian Radcliffe said.