THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch art sleuth best known for identifying works looted from Jewish owners by the Nazis said he helped German police recover two massive bronze horse sculptures crafted for Adolf Hitler, as more details emerged Friday about an amazing trove of Nazi-era art seized by authorities this week.
Arthur Brand provided tips to German detectives who made the stunning discovery in a series of coordinated raids, capping a long investigation into illegal art trafficking. Berlin police spokesman Michael Gassen, who confirmed authorities worked with Brand, said so far some 100 tons of art has been loaded onto trucks in the southwestern spa town of Bad Duerkheim where they were found in warehouses.
Eight suspects, whose identities have not been released by police, are under investigation on suspicion of dealing in stolen goods and fraud, Gassen said.
But Attorney Andreas Hiemsch, who represents the Bad Duerkheim man who was in possession of the art, denied the allegations, telling The Associated Press that his client had rightfully obtained the pieces from the Russian army more than 25 years ago.
Hiemsch said in an email that his client had even loaned certain pieces by artist Arno Brekers to a museum near Cologne over the past 20 years and had “a few years ago” offered the bronze horses by artist Josef Thorak to a “federal museum exhibit” but that he wasn’t taken seriously.
Brand, who runs a Dutch agency that helps track the provenance of artworks and advises buyers on the authenticity of works, says he was shocked when he pieced together enough evidence to prove that recent photos of the Thorak horses were not fakes.
In a telephone interview, Brand said when he first saw the photos, “I said, ‘Yeah, right, those horses were destroyed. This is ridiculous.'”
The photo came from a contact offering the horses for sale, Brand said, which in the end sought a whopping 8 million euros ($8.9 million). Gassen confirmed that 8 million euro-figure but Hiemsch denied the accusation, saying his client had never actively offered the pieces for sale.
It was enough to pique the interest of Brand.
Using everything from Russian military contacts to satellite images, sifting through German archives and watching old documentaries, Brand became convinced the horses were the sculptures that once stood on either side of the stairs into the grand chancellery building that Hitler had built in downtown Berlin. Further investigations led him to a number of locations he believed police should investigate.
Meanwhile, German police were carrying out their own investigations after an informant told them someone was trying to sell the horse sculptures and provided photos as evidence. Gassen said their initial tip came in 2013 and that Brand had been involved since late last year.
Among the huge haul of recovered art were the horses and three granite reliefs by Brekers believed to have been destined for Hitler’s chancellery but never installed, called “Waechter,” ”Raecher,” and “Kameraden” — “Guardians,” ”Avengers,” and “Comrades.”
The art will be brought to a secure police storage facility and eventually evaluated by Germany’s federal office for property to determine who or what institution should receive them after the investigation is complete.
The fate of the suspects under investigation is not Brand’s main focus.
“For me, the important thing is not to put people behind bars,” he said. “For me, the important thing is to get the art back.”
Rising reported from Berlin.
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