AUGSBURG, Germany — It started with a routine check by German tax inspectors — and resulted in the discovery of an art hoard so vast and spectacular that no one yet knows how the story truly ends.
On a high-speed train from Zurich to Munich on Sept. 22, 2010, Germany’s briskly polite officialdom was on the lookout for customs and tax cheats. Thousands of German citizens had bank accounts in Switzerland, many of them undeclared, and the route from Zurich was a prime target for those carrying substantial sums of cash.
One elderly man on the train raised suspicions, and prosecutors launched a preliminary tax probe against him.
Two years later, in February 2012, the trail led to the man’s apartment in a wealthy district of Munich. Once inside, inspectors found a far more glittering prize than smuggled cash or evaded taxes: a huge collection of hidden artwork that sheds new light on some of the 20th-century’s master painters and reawakens painful memories of Germany’s Nazi past.
The paintings, drawings, engravings, woodcuts and prints numbered more than 1,400 and were created by an all-star roster of modern art: Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-
Auguste Renoir, Oskar Kokoschka, and leading German artists Otto Dix, Max Liebermann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. At least one older work was in the trove: a 16th-century engraving of the Crucifixion by Albrecht Duerer.
Some pieces — ones by Matisse, Chagall, Dix — were previously unknown, not listed in the detailed inventories compiled by art scholars.
At a news conference Tuesday in Augsburg, Germany, prosecutors wouldn’t identify the elderly suspect, citing tax secrecy laws and the ongoing investigation.
The German magazine Focus reported that Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer who once acted for the Nazis, was the man under investigation.
Neither Cornelius Gurlitt nor his lawyer could immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.
The 121 framed and 1,285 unframed works found in one room at the apartment were “professionally stored and in a very good condition,” said Siegfried Kloeble, head of the customs investigations office in Munich.
Investigators, aided by a leading art historian, are trying to establish the artworks’ legal status and history. Officials said they have done at least preliminary research on only about 500 of the pieces.
Speaking at the news conference, prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said investigators have turned up “concrete evidence” that the find includes works that the Nazis classed as “degenerate art” and seized from German museums in 1937 or shortly after, and other works that may have been taken from individuals. The Nazis often forced Jewish collectors to sell their art at pitifully low prices to German dealers or simply took them.
Meike Hoffmann of the Free University of Berlin, is an expert on “degenerate art” — largely modern or abstract works that Adolf Hitler’s regime believed to be a corrupt influence on the German people. Hoffmann showed some of the works during a slide show at the news conference.
She showed works that she said had not been known to scholars, or known only from documents without any photos to give an idea what the works looked like.
One Matisse painting of a woman, seized by the Nazis in France during World War II, is not in the established catalog of his works, she noted. A Chagall gouache of an allegorical scene also isn’t among the artist’s listed works.
Other works, such as an unknown self-portrait by 20th-century German artist Otto Dix or a woodcut by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, added new breadth to what’s known about the artists, Hoffmann said.
Overall, Hoffmann was elated with the quality and the depth of the find.
“When you stand in front of the works, see the ones that were long thought to have been lost or destroyed and in a relatively good state — some of them dirty but not damaged — you have an incredible feeling of happiness,” she told reporters.
Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.