PARIS — Twenty-eight French masterpieces seized by the Nazis during World War II, including paintings by Monet, Renoir and Gauguin, have been found in a cupboard at a Berlin museum, a news magazine reported today.
This week's cover story in L'Express described how the works seized from private citizens between 1942 and 1944 have been locked away since 1972, their existence known to only a handful of people.
According to the magazine, the Department of French National Museums learned that the works existed in 1975 but "was not interested because the works did not come from national collections."
"Never did the prestigious department think of consulting its experts or glancing through the catalogues of the artists in question," l'Express wrote.
The paintings included Claude Monet's "Route, Effet d'Hiver. Soleil Couchant (Road, Effect. Sunset)"; Eugene Delacroix's "Jeune Homme (Young Man)"; Auguste Renoir's "Coco Ecrivant (Coco Writing)"; and Paul Gauguin's "La Falaise (The Cliff)." They were examined by l'Express reporters, who said they were in excellent condition.
Sylvie Poujade, a French museum spokeswoman, said her department learned of the paintings' existence a month ago when contacted by l'Express reporters.
"We searched our archives and did not find proof that the department had ever received a list of works from Berlin," Poujade said.
Poujade said French museums are considered "depositories of state property which they are expected to conserve and display in good condition."
"Our role is not to track down or recuperate artworks not considered state property. That's the job of other government offices," she said.
The magazine quoted Lothar Brauner, curator at the Nationalgalerie, in formerly East Berlin, as saying he received the works on May 19, 1972, from an unidentified person claiming to have gotten them from a third party.
A legal document drawn up that day shows that the person wished to hand over the paintings "so that they would be properly preserved until being returned to their rightful owners."
Brauner said he did not know who the rightful owners were.
According to l'Express, French museum authorities were informed that the works were in Berlin by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, which had been contacted by authorities in eastern Germany.
L'Express recounted how Brauner and his wife, a restoration expert, locked the paintings in a yellow wooden armoire and equipped it with a pail of water and a hydrometer to measure the humidity. From time to time, they would check the paintings' condition, the magazine wrote.
During the war, the Nazis sought to amass as much art as possible to fulfill Hitler's dream of creating a European arts center in his native Linz, Austria. Several of his aides, including Martin Bormann and Hermann Goring, were also art collectors and rerouted much of the booty into their own hands.