This Real-Life Sherlock Holmes Hunts Down Stolen Nazi Art

In the past two decades, Chris Marinello has recovered $350 million worth of stolen and looted art, including several priceless works the Nazis plundered during WWII

When German authorities descended on a cluttered, unassuming Munich apartment in March of 2012, they uncovered a stash of some 1,500 paintings and drawings that had been kept from the public eye for more than 70 years. The collection, which was valued at $1 billion, included masterpieces by Chagall, Picasso and Matisse, and was in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-year-old son of a prominent dealer of Nazi-looted art.

Many of the paintings had been taken from distinguished Jewish art collectors and gallerists as part of the Hitler-mandated plunder that occurred throughout World War II, and among them was a Matisse that had belonged to Paul Rosenberg, a renowned Parisian art dealer and personal friend of the artist.

So after a German magazine feature broke the historic discovery in November of last year, the Rosenberg heirs set about getting the Matisse back with the help of Chris Marinello—one of the world’s most experienced art hunters and restitution experts. As the founder of Art Recovery International, a London-based company that specializes in returning fine art pilfered by Nazis and modern-day criminals, the 52-year-old, Brooklyn-born attorney has located and recovered some $350 million worth of stolen and looted art in his 20 years on the job.

“Some of the biggest cases we’ve got going on right now are some of the biggest cases in the world in this area,” Marinello says. “A 30 million euro piece in Italy, a 10 million euro Crivelli in Portugal, the Gurlitt case, and we have some other Matisses. I think I’ve recovered five or six Matisses over the years.”

Marinello is one of a small handful of lawyers around the world who work in this area, and last Friday many of them gathered in New York for NYU’s Art Law Day, a conference dedicated to the intersection of law and the art market.

A sharp-suited Marinello and I meet at a café following his panel on restitution, which featured Christie’s director of stolen art, as well as Marianne Rosenberg, the granddaughter of Paul Rosenberg. Marianne is currently leading the decades-long fight to recoup hundreds of paintings stolen from her family by the Nazi regime; as of today, around 60 paintings from the Rosenberg collection are still missing, along with nearly 100,000 works of art that belong to other families.

In the past 15 years Marinello has helped the Rosenbergs recover one of Monet’s “Waterlillies,” which was found hanging on the wall of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts during a Monet retrospective, as well as Matisse’s “Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace,” which was discovered as part of a Norway museum’s permanent collection. Today, Marinello and the Rosenbergs are embroiled in the battle for the Matisse from the Gurlitt trove, which has faced enduring complications, including the death of Gurlitt himself in May of this year.

Retrieving Nazi-looted art is never easy. You can’t just ask for it back. First there is the task of proving provenance (art world jargon for history of ownership) decades after the crime, and once you do that, the current owner—be it a museum or a private buyer—is not even legally obligated to return it. The only existing statutes that deal with how countries should handle Nazi-confiscated art—known as the Washington Conference Principles—are nonbinding.

To make matters more difficult, in most cases the people who end up with this art are known as “good faith buyers,” implying that they bought the pieces without knowing they were stolen. Ultimately, this means that Marinello, despite being a lawyer, is unable to depend on the law for much of the work he does. Instead, he is compelled to rely on the more tenuous forces of morality, ethics and politics in order to convince people that retuning a painting is in their best interests—what he calls “creative solutions.”

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