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Increase Your Chances of Art Fair Success By Doing These Six Things

Art Fair Success
Art Fair Sucess

The jury has given you the green light to participate in their art fair. It’s time to pull out all stops to ensure your art fair success.

Art fairs provide opportunities for artists to stake their claims on the world–to let our creations shine.  We serve notice to the world that we are in the game.
Where else can you set up shop without breaking the bank and have access to thousands upon thousands of shoppers? Many of them interested in what we’re selling.

Do these six things to increase your chances for art fair success.

Choose the right fairs.

Too often artists enter art fairs they have no business participating in. Let’s say your product is fine arts, yet you enter a fair where crafts are the dominant products. That’s the wrong audience for you, and there is a good chance you’ll have a disappointing fair.

The way to avoid this is to do your homework before entering. A even better idea is to visit that fair as a patron and get a feel for what it’s about. If you don’t see a decent number of fine art vendors, take heed and avoid that fair.

 Have a feature presentation

It’s a great feeling to have a crowd waiting to enter your booth. Your feature presentation should be fabulous and hard to resist. It’s the crowd overload that tells you you’ve gotten it right… that your presentation is on target.

The bonus is, when others see so many people trying to get into your booth, they become curious. They want to know what all the hoopla is about; they get line. Some in that crowd are going to purchase your art.

• Meet the public with warmth and a good attitude.

Nobody wants to give their money to a grouch. Yes, the public will love your art, but they won’t open their wallet for a funky attitude.
Patrons love talking to artists. They want to know how you did this and how you did that. As artists we must be prepared to indulge them. It goes a long way towards our efforts at experiencing art fair success.

• Do your part of the marketing

Yes, it’s the job of fair organizers to do all they can to ensure art fair success for all involved. But for artists to have a better fair we have to do our part. That includes distributing the post cards advertising the fair, informing those on our email listings,  and include fair information in our off-line marketing packages. If all participants do their part, the chances for art fair success are high.

• Be friendly to the other artists

If you are kind, everyone, including other artists will remember you fondly. Relationships have sprang from stranger situations… sometimes lucrative relationships. You just never know. Many an artist have befriended someone at an art fair whom they later participated in an exhibition with.

To Solidify art fair success

• Collect email addresses at the fair

Talking about paying off later… this is your market. Art fairs are just one revenue stream. Once trust is established via email communications, revenues generated from those on your email list will be another source.  Nobody, but nobody doing a robust amount of business on the world wide web is without a fat email list.
So along with the handouts in your booth, have a sheet for interested parties to sign up for your emails.

As an artist who is active on the art fair scene, I can attest, if you approach art fairs using these tactics you will realize art fair success.

Lester Myricks, Jr.

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Too Many Art Fairs


Happy Art Fair Customers
Happy Art Fair Customers

This  year we upped the ante on the art fair scene.  We increased our exhibits 100 fold from the summer of 2016. 

It’s not the quantity but the quality of the fair that determines the success of the artist, we were reminded.

Not only did we increase our exhibits, we ventured out of state for the first time.  Still the saying holds true; it’s not about quantity.

  It is incumbent upon the management of the fair to do all they can to ensure that the fair is a positive experience for them, the artists, and the patrons.

Artists talk to one another.  They have no problems letting each other know which fairs to stay away from and which they recommend.  You have to be a bit discerning in these situations because I’m certain every artist can think of a fair where they did well, but the next artist did not, and vice versa.  So we don’t instantly shy away from a fair because a particular artist doesn’t give it good reviews, but one thing is almost universally true:  If those in charge of the fair are begging for artists, it’s usually a red flag. 

When fairs are great, meaning everyone is making money, there is a waiting list of artists wanting to be invited to participate.

Art Fairs With No Patrons

Twice, since we’ve been on the art fair circuit, we have participated in a fair that produced next to zero patrons.  I mean these art fairs were so bad not even the food vendors made money.  At one fair the food vendors packed up early,  left,  and didn’t return the next day.  Most of the artists did  return the second day believing there couldn’t possibly be two days in a row that bad… we were wrong!  Food vendors can usually count on making money; people are going to eat.  But if the people don’t show up…

In these situations there has been either zero marketing or the marketing was so poorly done that it was a waste of money and time, resulting in a disastrous art fair.

I’m not going to mention the name even though I really want to, but this one art fair in Oakland County Michigan seemed to have little interest in the artists and vendors being successful.  They did however, realizing there was little chance we’d participate in their fair the following summer, attempt to milk the situation for all it was worth.  I can’t even recall all the things they attempted to get the artists to buy into on the spot.  It smelled scandalous.

One food vendor whom they duped into paying $2500 to participate said they actually lied to him claiming he could count on a ridiculous number of patrons who would all be hungry.  The only thing ridiculous was the total lack of patrons.  It’s not a situation you normally see at an art fair, and trust me when you experience it, you do not forget it.

Having said that, most art fair coordinators work hard  to ensure the artists experience at least some success; they want us to speak glowingly about their fair when we talk to other artists and they want us to return the following year.

Will We Continue To exhibit at art fairs?

We will, but with a keener eye on art fairs that are worth our time and efforts.

We embarked upon this art fair journey with these goals in mind:

  • Test the waters to see if there were those interested enough to pull out their wallets and pay for a piece of Lester’s art.
  • To gain exposure
  • To make contacts, and
  • To get a feel for what other artists were doing.

We’ve accomplished each of these goals and gained a ton of knowledge in the process.

Even with the unsuccessful fairs, which were about half this past summer, it’s been a fun and educational ride.  So yes, We will be back in the summer of 2018.

When Creating Art For Sale, Keep It Honest













When a child marks up a piece of paper, he enjoys seeing a paper void of content, all- of- a- sudden distorted by the instrument in his hand. No, it does not qualify as art for sale, yet he’s amazed by it and does it again and again. Children are actually so amazed that parents panic whenever an unrestrained toddler gets a crayon in his hand. Without a doubt, unchecked, something is going to get marked up.

That same kid may or may not become an adult who sits at a canvas with the intent of creating art for sale. It’s different however because now when the adult sits at the blank canvas, a story is about to unfold. An actor once said, “it is incumbent upon every artist to say something that hasn’t been said.” I go a step further and suggest it is paramount to the success of an artist to communicate his truth.

This is me! This is who I am, should scream from the canvas as the artist creates.

Based on the medium, artists use relative instruments to tell stories from their perspective… from how they view events and everything in their environment. I can’t speak for other artists but it’s impossible for me to create if I’m not feeling a work. Also, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that an honest piece of work is the only work worth viewing. Only honest creations can get a foot in the door as art for sale.

Because of the difficulties artists experience selling their work they may sometimes feel tempted to create art they believe the public will buy, yet it’s not who they are. I admonish any artist who attempts to hawk these frauds as art for sale. Imagine the strain of talking up the creation to a potential customer?

The prerequisite of every successful salesperson is that they are passionate about their product. If your art is something you’ve thrown together in hopes of attracting the attention of a certain market, versus creating from what you feel inside, you are going to be hard-pressed to talk up a piece in such a way that you:
• draw the customer into the creation… engagement.
• get the “wow” factor resulting in them having to have the piece.
• and ultimately proving… it is art for sale.

Additionally, as it didn’t come from the heart, it will no doubt conflict with other pieces that were created from an honest place.

What’s an Artist to do?

Should artists create what takes hold of them regardless of the commercial value? What about creating art for sale?  The truth is, there is always someone interested in what you are selling. The challenge is for seller and buyer to meet… and to meet at the right time.

Street jargon advises, “Keep It Real.” If you do that with all of your creations you’ll never find yourself uncomfortable when potential buyers want to pick your brain so they understand one or more pieces of your work.

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Art ExhibitAn automotive supplier relocated to new offices and as part of the open house celebration, me and other selected artists were invited to display our art. The planners thought it would be an excellent way to add a special touch to the event. It was presented as an opportunity for us, the artists, to showcase our work to an audience who might be interested.

It behooves every artist to be selective when accepting these types of invitations.

The planners were pumped; “so many positives could result from having artists in the house simultaneously with the businessmen who would be attending the event.” The excitement gathered momentum like an avalanche, with all invited artists caught in the rumble, busting our butts so as to make fantastic presentations.

Having artists there was suppose to accomplish three objectives:
• Decorating the office with the art displayed
• Providing the artists with a platform for exposure
• Positioning the artists to possibly sale their creations.
Only the first objective was realized.

This event was a total and I do mean total, waste of time for the artists. The attendees came to patronize the event, not to experience and buy art. Not one person paused to glance at any of the art on display. These were businessmen about the business of performing their perfunctory duty of showing up, making small talk with their ilk and getting out of there. These were men (yes men) who when they were in the mood for art, they visited a gallery.

As one of the “artists in waiting”—waiting for one of the attendees to show a modicum of interest, my afternoon and part of the evening was spent drinking beer, eating nuts and socializing with the other “artists in waiting.”

At an art show, even when sales are slow you still come away with contacts, fresh ideas, and often worthwhile opportunities. I dare say the only thing I left with was a determination to decline all other such invitations.

I don’t hold it against the event planners—they actually thought they’d hit pay dirt. And they made it bearable by feeding us and providing us with all the libations we wanted. Had those perks not been provided and had the artists not had each other for conversation, we all would have been twiddling our thumbs while watching the clock.

It has become so crystal clear that I must be ever so vigilant with whom and where I share my art. Think about it, the time I spent preparing for and standing around this event was valuable time I could have been in my studio working on my next creation.

Should you receive an invitation to exhibit your art, ask this one question: Is art the main attraction or is it the sideshow? If the affair is all about art, then the attendees will be there (most anyway) for the art. Accordingly, you won’t experience a situation where absolutely no one pauses at your exhibit.

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Art, Why Artists Paint

Art, Why Artists Paint

Artist's Paint Brushes
Artist’s Paint Brushes

“Get a real job,” the parent says. Another parent may say, I’m not paying thousands of dollars for college so you can learn to draw a house better.” It’s the horror parents respond to when their child announces the desire to be an artist. Somehow we can’t get away from parents who have dreamed since the birth of the child…this one will be a doctor or lawyer—a teacher even.

Passion is unforgiving and relentless. And when that passion is drawing and painting, parents, naysayers and anyone else who will oppose may as well toss their admonitions to the stars.
So often the artist will remain mute but allow their work to do the bulk of their communicating. I believe it’s one of the reasons artists are so in love with their craft; they and their brushes are always on the same page—pun intended.

For many artists, their art is their best form of communication. Sure they speak when it is necessary, but the real indication of what they are about scream from the canvas. To understand how deep or not an artist is, it would behoove you to invest time examining their art.

It is no small feat to observe one’s surroundings and put the thoughts on canvas by way of imagery. It is through this expression that we get to delve into the artist’ psyche. We get to see how a particular artist processes the signals their brain receives from the environment.

Note that when an artist is creating, unless commissioned, they are creating for themselves, not the general public. They glide their brushes over the canvas as if they are an author penning a novella. That another enjoys the work is a bonus and of course the artist is thrilled; that the viewer gets lost the story is wonderful. Yet no one enjoys the ride like the artist.

Oh, the joy of taking a blank canvas and transforming it stroke by stroke into a creation that can live on throughout the centuries. If you ask most artists why they paint, they will respond that they do it for the thrill of it, for the relaxation it brings them, and for the opportunity to tell a story they’re itching to tell.

Just as one’s wall art in their home speaks of who the home dweller is, the finished canvas reveals who and what the artist is.

The creation itself may or may not move the viewer, no biggie, the artist usually paints from inspiration. Accordingly, at least one person is moved by the creation or at least motivated to see it to fruition. And that is why the artist paints.

Tell us your thoughts:

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Art Fairs: My Initiation

Art Fair
Art Fair

This past summer, my wife began entering my art into juried art fairs. She thought it time others were given the opportunity to experience my art as she has for so many years. It was my introduction to the retail side of art.

Too often events dubbed “art fair” could more accurately be called festivals or craft shows. For sure many art fairs feature artist who actually paint in some form or the other. But to throw those who create brooms from scratch or build park benches in the same category with artist who use pencils, brush, and canvas is a tad misleading from my perspective. I found this to be the case in at least two of the fairs I participated in. Yes, there were a couple of painters besides myself but tons of jewelry artist, and others who were good at creating with their hands.

Don’t get me wrong… no sour grapes here, this summer was wonderfully educational. A biggie that I learned is: if an organization is begging for artist participation there is usually a reason why. The best “art fairs” where both vendor and organization thrive, usually have a waiting list of artist wanting an invitation.

I actually did a bit of surveying when I found myself with too much quiet time on my hands. I’d walk to the booths of other artists who paint and just stand and observed whether we were experiencing the same kind of day. As I’d suspected, I was not alone.

I understand that people don’t buy art the way they buy clothing, jewelry and food. So it’s not unusual to have maybe one customer for every 25 to 30 a jewelry booth has.

Another thing I learned: Choosing the right art fair is so necessary for success –I must understand my market–who buys my art and go after those shows that cater to “my” customer. If my community has an art fair, sure many in the community will support it by coming out. Most however come out to enjoy the festivities. I can’t assume because they are there that they’ve come to enjoy art. Most come to enjoy being out and many will walk pass the booth without even a glance. Enough will stop and ooh and ah, and Thank God, some will even make a purchase.

There are the art fairs where those who have an interest and an appreciation for fine art will not be among the majority; these are the fairs I must avoid.

Do I Believe Art Fairs are Worth the time and effort?

Definitely. The education, the contacts, the opportunities that have opened up, and even the art I’ve sold, made for a good summer. My wife frequently tells me that there is always someone interested in buying what you’re selling; the challenge is for buyer and seller to meet.

Art fairs are one avenue where that can take place. She also reminds me that no one steps up to bat and hits the ball out of the park on the first attempt– it’s about learning how the game is best played and paying your dues.

My venture into the world of art fairs made for an interesting and unusual summer and I look forward to showcasing my growth by being even better at it next summer.

Art Prints Deserve Our Respect

Recently my husband and I visited an art gallery on our side of town. We’ve visited the Detroit Institute of Arts on many occasions, but we’d never visited a for-profit gallery. Another first was we’d never visited a gallery where” art prints” were sold. So visiting The Park West Gallery with price tags stationed by each creation of art was a new experience. The prints were hand embellished. Hand embellished art prints make reproductions look as though they are originals, and they were magnificent.

It’s never a bad day to be captivated by world class art be it high premium art prints or originals.
The featured artist was an Italian named Daeni Pino. I wasn’t familiar with him before seeing his exhibit, but was immediately drawn into his paintings– all softness and sensuality.

Were I to sum up my impression of Pino’s work in two words they would be soft and sensual. And that would cover the majority of his body of work that I experienced that day. Many of the portraits were full of the colors lime and pink– like a bouquet of roses sprinkled throughout with baby’s breath. The expert use of these colors put the paintings on a soft trajectory.

For sure this artist has paintings involving the male species but the bulk of his work is of woman and then women and children. Part of his genius was that even though the paintings are void of the male species, you got the feeling that many are about the men in the ladies lives. The way he positioned these ladies– the facial expressions he applied to them is nothing short of genius.

To be able to wrangle that much sensitivity out of a paint brush the artist had to have been a sensitive soul himself– to recognize the soft and sensual and then capture it… wow!

Much of this art is presented in hand embellished art prints staged in elaborate frames. Yes, giclee art prints selling for thousands of dollars, yet a good deal unless you were adamant on having an original which went for about $75,000.

Compare that to paying maybe $5,000 for the art print and the decision will likely depend upon your goal. A collector may shun the art print, but someone who just enjoys surrounding themselves with art that makes them feel good and is not bent on getting a return on it (they have no intention of parting with it) the $5,000 art print will do just fine.

We visited the gallery with the intent of paying attention to the way the gallery packaged and presented art to the public, but we left with so much more: we became familiar with an artist we hadn’t heard of. We weren’t just exposed to his body of work, we were swept into his creations and taken for a joyful ride.

We concluded our self-imposed assignment by acknowledging that beautiful art demands a pedestal and cannot be shortchanged in its presentation, even if that art is in the form of high premium, hand embellished art prints.

Delusions in Detroit

Since last spring, when Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, said that he might have to sell art from the city-owned collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts to help pay off the city’s $18 billion in debt, the museum has been operating in a state of unreality. Less than a year after voters in three nearby counties approved a property tax to fund the DIA for 10 years, the museum’s survival was again endangered. And last week, on the day that Judge Steven W. Rhodes of U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved the city’s Chapter 9 filing and allowed Mr. Orr to proceed with his restructuring plan, creditors balked at the less-than-a-billion-dollar estimate of the value of the art provided by Christie’s, even though that figure exceeds Mr. Orr’s goal of getting $500 million from the DIA.

The DIA’s predicament is unprecedented. No American museum has ever been pressed to bail out its bankrupt hometown. Any sale would violate two cardinal principles of museum ethics: the doctrine that museums hold art in trust for future generations and that, therefore, artworks may be sold only to purchase more art.

Nor has any museum been at the center of the clash between competing definitions of the public good, forced to defend itself from critics who sketch the to-sell-or-not-to-sell quandary in moral terms. These people argue that art cannot be spared while retired police officers and bus drivers are forced to lose part of their pensions—even though the proceeds from art sales would be shared with lawyers, consultants and other creditors and amount to pennies per person.

Little wonder, then, that this complex situation has elicited numerous opinions that are so disconnected from reality that they amount to magical thinking.

Last month, for example, at a panel discussion in New York on the DIA’s plight hosted by the International Foundation for Art Research, Richard Feigen, a well-known New York art dealer, suggested that no one would be so unprincipled as to buy art from the museum. The audience applauded, until David Nash, another well-known New York dealer, broke the spell. Plenty of people in Russia, the Middle East and China would be interested in buying the DIA’s masterpieces, he rightly said.

At the same event, the DIA’s director, Graham W.J. Beal, said he was “optimistic” that the museum would escape unscathed, citing the 22-page opinion issued by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in June. It declared that “no piece in the collection may be sold, conveyed or transferred to satisfy City debts or obligations” because the art is held in public trust. Yet Mr. Schuette’s opinion is far from impregnable: It may not withstand the near-certain court challenge from creditors.

For their part, Detroit’s creditors—perhaps eyeing last month’s sale of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych of Lucien Freud for $142.4 million—are unrealistically expecting billions of dollars from the DIA. Yet the DIA owns no contemporary artworks of similar caliber; its most important objects are Impressionist and Old Master works, such as Rembrandt’s “Visitation” (1640), markets where demand is lower, buyers fewer and prices generally not as high.

These and other delusions are influencing decision-making, and that is a dangerous game. Before any decisions are reached, these half-truths and untruths must be shown for what they are and discarded:

The DIA’s art must be treated like all other city assets.This notion presupposes similar outcomes in each case. But the DIA is the only one of the three main assets in Mr. Orr’s sights that would be irrevocably damaged. One other, Belle Isle, which houses the aquarium and yacht club, has been leased by the state and taken off the table. The second, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, might be privatized, then even improved. If art from the DIA is dispersed, the museum would be destroyed—if not immediately, when the museum loses the $23 million provided by the millage tax (two of the three counties have said they will cease payments if the museum’s art is sold and an official of the third has said the same privately), then eventually, as it becomes less attractive to visitors and donors alike.

The DIA could easily part with some of its 66,000 artworks.Mr. Orr charged Christie’s with evaluating only the 2,871 works purchased with city funds, to avoid violation of donor restrictions. Of those, fewer than 450 have a fair market value of $50,000 or more, and 319 of these works are on view. Some 75% of the total value lies in just 11 works, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Wedding Dance” (c. 1566), Vincent van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (1887), Henri Matisse’s “Window” (1916), Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child” (1509) and a drawing by Michelangelo.

Other U.S. museums will buy the DIA’s art, keeping it on public view.Nothing could be further from the truth. American museums, by and large, do not have the acquisition funds they would need for, say, the Bruegel. Even if they did, they wouldn’t buy because of ethical reasons. Walter A. Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently said that his curatorial staff would quit if the Met bid on anything from the DIA, a prospect also probable at other museums.

Foreign museums will buy these masterpieces, keeping them in the public domain.This is unlikely. With the exception of some in the Middle East, most museums are stretched for funds, too, as state funding has shrunk. Rather, the DIA’s art would probably go to private collectors overseas and out of public view. Case in point: van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which sold in 1990 for a then-record $82.5 million to a Japanese businessman, hasn’t been exhibited publicly since.

Philanthropists will come to the DIA’s rescue. In this scenario, wealthy Michiganders would buy the DIA’s treasures and redonate them. But in the past several years, the DIA raised more than $350 million from this donor pool to modernize its building and increase its endowment. The millage was designed to give the DIA time to raise an added $300 million over 10 years for its endowment. Would these same individuals and foundations be able to donate an additional, say, $500 million to repurchase what the museum already owns to pay Detroit’s bills? Doubtful.

The art doesn’t have to be sold; it can be monetized.Yes, money can be gleaned from the collection without selling it. But museum ethics block the easiest method of doing so, using it as loan collateral, and ethical standards can’t simply be abandoned at the door of bankruptcy court. More important, where would Detroit get the money to repay the loans? This proposal imperils the DIA’s collection in a deal over which it has no control of the outcome—and that’s a bad deal.

Christie’s has advanced some other ideas for monetizing the collection, but each has limited potential. In one, the DIA would tour part of its collection, as the Barnes Foundation did in 1993-95, earning about $17 million. But the two collections are not comparable; a better guide would be “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: the Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” which recently visited four U.S. museums and took in a reported $375,000. The DIA has twice toured portions of its collection recently, raising $700,000.

Another idea would have the DIA find a cash-rich partner museum, an idea fueled by the Louvre’s pact with Abu Dhabi for $1.3 billion over several years. Mr. Beal has traveled to the Middle East, but found no takers. More reasonable partner expectations might be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; it provides two exhibitions per year to Nagoya, Japan, for about $2 million a year, less expenses, a meager amount.

A third idea would create a “masterpiece trust” into which the DIA would transfer ownership of city-owned works. Other museums, here or abroad, would then pay membership fees to the city entitling them to borrow works from the trust, like a time-share. But this would remove DIA’s treasures from the view of the Michigan public whose tax dollars support the museum.

How, then, can the DIA realistically meet Mr. Orr’s decree that it be “part of the solution”?

The Detroit Free Press reported last week that the city’s power brokers are “working furiously” to raise $500 million from foundations to barter for the DIA’s independence. Though difficult—the total annual giving of 10 of the largest foundations involved barely tops $1 billion and it would be hard for them to divert so much to the DIA and meet their other obligations—this would reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable, assuming it passed muster with Mr. Orr.

If that fails, there appears to be only one life-saving solution for the DIA: The state would pay Detroit and transfer ownership to Michigan. So far, Gov. Rick Snyder has declined to give the idea a hearing, and the diversion of money from state coffers to the DIA might face opposition. But Michiganders might remember that in the 1920s and ’30s, the cash-hungry Soviet government sold off Russia’s art treasures, dispersing them to other countries. Today, that episode is viewed as a national tragedy.

Art Stolen by Nazis Found


Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Man Seated
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Man Seated

Updated Nov. 4, 2013 11:52 a.m. ET

Anne Webber Founder and Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe discusses the significance of the discovery of around 1,500 missing works confiscated by the Nazis in an apartment in Munich, Germany, and how dealers gained possession of the works.

A trove of about 1,500 artworks confiscated by the Nazis was unearthed in the trash-filled apartment of an elderly Munich man, German authorities confirmed Monday, a spectacular find of lost treasure that reverberated across the art world.

The works, by artists including Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, are estimated to be worth about €1 billion ($1.35 billion), according to a preliminary analysis for authorities undertaken by an expert at Berlin’s Free University. German authorities made the discovery more than two years ago but kept the finding a secret, they say, pending the completion of their investigation.

Details of the discovered artwork remain unclear, but art historians said initial descriptions suggest the cache is one of the most significant collections of pre-war European art in the world. Determining the rightful owners of the works decades after they were either sold under duress or seized could take years.

The collection is thought to have been amassed in the 1930s and 1940s by Hildebrand Gurlitt, the father of the Munich man in whose home the works were discovered. The senior Mr. Gurlitt was known as a museum curator-turned-art dealer who, despite having a Jewish mother, was one of a handful of art dealers commissioned by Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi propaganda ministry to rid German museums and galleries of “degenerate” art.

“These are major artists who were all very well-known at the time Hitler put works of theirs in his ‘degenerate’ art exhibition, and it’s certainly a large number of works, but it remains to be seen what the quality of the works is,” said Olivier Berggruen, a New-York based art historian whose Jewish father, Heinz Berggruen, left Germany to become one of the world’s most prestigious dealers of Matisses and Picassos after the war.

In the art market, the implications for the recovered trove could be significant. The few top works lost or sold in desperation during the Nazi era that have been restored to their rightful owners and subsequently auctioned off have consistently seen major—often record-breaking—success. In 2008, amid an otherwise crashing art market, “Suprematist Composition,” a restituted 1916 work by Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, was sold for $60 million at Sotheby’s, setting a world record for Russian art.

Mr. Gurlitt’s 80-year-old son, Cornelius Gurlitt stored the collection of works in his Munich apartment for decades, according to German weekly Focus, which reported the discovery Sunday. German customs officials unearthed the works in the spring of 2011 and have been trying to determine their provenance and value since.

In a 1938 photo, a man looked at pieces from the Nazi-curated travelling exhibition, ‘Degenerate Art,’ (Entartete Kunst) at its second stop at the Haus der Kunst in Berlin. Reuters

Though German authorities seized the art, Mr. Gurlitt managed to sell one work at auction in December 2011, after the discovery, according to the Cologne-based boutique auction house Lempertz, which managed the sale.

The auction house said Mr. Gurlitt approached Lempertz with the “Lion Tamer,” a work by the German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann.

“He said his mother had given him the work,” said Carsten Felgner, the provenance researcher at Lempertz who worked on the sale.

As is common in potentially thorny cases involving work acquired during World War II, Mr. Felgner contacted the family of Alfred Flechtheim, the work’s original owner who had been a prominent collector.

Given the uncertainty over who had a legal claim to the work, the auction house reached a deal to split the profits of the €864,000 Beckmann work between the Flechtheim family, Mr. Gurlitt and the auction house itself, according to Mr. Felgner.

A person who coordinated with Mr. Gurlitt on the sale at Lempertz described him as “friendly and charming” and said no one at the auction house “suspected a thing.” An employee who visited Mr. Gurlitt’s house said nothing out of the ordinary was seen at his residence.

Because of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s contacts abroad, the Nazis allowed him to sell the “degenerate” art overseas to raise money for the Reich. The elder Gurlitt’s personal collection was thought to have been destroyed along with his house during a World War II bomb attack on Dresden, and he died in a car crash in 1956.

German customs officials stumbled onto the matter by chance in 2010, following a routine check of the junior Mr. Gurlitt’s belongings on a train from Switzerland to Munich, according to Focus. During the check, they found €9,000 in cash. The sum was below the €10,000 threshold that travellers are required to declare, but the discovery prompted the custom authorities to investigate Mr. Gurlitt further. Months later, in the spring of 2011, authorities discovered the lost works in his Munich apartment, the magazine said.

Mr. Gurlitt is under investigation for allegations of tax evasion, officials said. He couldn’t be reached for comment. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Augsburg, which is handling the probe, declined to say whether Mr. Gurlitt has been charged with a crime. Customs officials in Munich also declined to comment.

Auction managers said they were surprised to learn from news reports that Mr. Gurlitt was under investigation.

“No one from the government ever came to us or alerted us about him. What does it say about the federal prosecutors that they didn’t feel the need to alert the auction houses?” Mr. Felgner said.

Observers both in and outside the art world criticized the German government for remaining silent about the discovery for so long, given the historic ramifications of such a revelation.

Rüdiger Mahlo, German representative for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany—which seeks compensation and restitution for survivors of the Holocaust—said the two-year silence about the trove “underscores [the fact that] a lack of transparency often accompanies the restitution of art and cultural treasures.”

A person familiar with the investigation said the secrecy surrounding the probe and its discovery was necessary because it involved allegations of tax evasion. Under Germany’s strict privacy laws, authorities are prohibited from disclosing the details of such investigations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office was informed of the case months ago and has been assisting investigators in finding experts to evaluate the works, her spokesman said. Berlin’s Free University, which is assisting in evaluating the art, acknowledged its role but said it couldn’t comment further.

Meike Hoffmann, a Free University specialist in Nazi-condemned art who is the lead researcher involved in evaluating the trove, has for months been using the Art Loss Register, an international database used to track stolen and missing art, to begin the lengthy process of determining ownership of the works, according to a person familiar with the matter. Ms. Hoffmann didn’t respond to requests to comment.

A complete catalog of the works in the trove hasn’t been disclosed. But they included works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall—artists whose works Hitler, who was an amateur artist in his youth, derided.

“Artworks that cannot be understood in and of themselves—but first require a user’s manual in order to finally find those intimidated people who patiently accept such stupid and impudent nonsense—will no longer find their way to the German people,” Hitler said of the term “degenerate,” though even his own art historians had difficulty deciding what art to ban.

Such work was collected by German museums and prominent collectors in the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Berggruen said.

“The vagaries of the war were such that a lot of Picassos, Matisses and Klees, too, changed hands many times,” including some that also were looted by Russians, Mr. Berggruen said.

Restitution could be a lengthy and ambiguous process. Last year Munich’s Neue Pinakothek held an exhibition of 16 sculptures of “degenerate” art unearthed by construction workers digging near Berlin’s Rathaus, or city hall. Those works are now property of the German state, the conclusion to a “relatively quick” investigation by art historians, said Matthias Wemhoff, who directed the excavation and restoration of the works.

But those works had been presumed lost but had been well-documented, which doesn’t seem to be the case for the newly discovered trove, he said. It could take Free University historians years to determine their rightful owners, he added.

“It is so unclear who has the rights to these works,” Mr. Wemhoff said.

Many of the works are most likely editions of prints or works on paper, which will make determining their values even more difficult, experts say.

Because of their popularity even before the war, most masterpieces by Picasso and Matisse are accounted for, Mr. Berggruen said.