The recent discovery in Germany of 1,400 artworks apparently stolen by the Nazis sparked a worldwide buzz, especially in Minneapolis, where Walker Art Center owns a masterpiece that bears a startling resemblance to one of the long-hidden images.

The Walker’s painting, “The Large Blue Horses” by Franz Marc, is a sensuous 6-foot-wide picture of three cobalt-blue animals preening in a red and yellow landscape. The symbolic image has been a Walker favorite since it was acquired the very week that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and plunged the United States into World War II.

The newly discovered German work is more enigmatic. Judging from an image released this month, it is almost identical to the Walker’s painting in composition, with three curvaceous horses nuzzling in front of undulating hills, but in naturalistic shades of taupe and gray. It appears to be a watercolor, pastel or gouache and is likely much smaller than the Walker’s big oil painting.

German officials have not released any information about it, so experts are reluctant to speculate about the pictures’ relationship. “We don’t want to make any assumptions about whether it was a study, or another version, or a drawing done after the painting,” said Walker curator Siri Engberg.

A billion-dollar hoard

No one is certain where the newfound Marc came from. In February 2012, German officials found it with a horde of art in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an 80-something recluse whose father had sold art on behalf of the Nazis during WWII. A German magazine estimated the art to be worth upward of $1.35 billion.

Officials are still unraveling the case and have not even published a list of the art, let alone tracked down the museums, collectors and heirs who might claim it. That process is expected to take years. Based on an important Marc catalog, some scholars think the work was owned by the Moritzburg Museum in Halle, Germany.

“The whole discovery is astounding,” said Joan Rothfuss, a former Walker curator who helped organize a 2001 show of paintings by Marc and others that traveled to Germany. “What’s interesting is to compare this mostly monochromatic piece and the Walker’s painting, which is a riot of color. Is it a study? Or a version in which he just worked out his composition?”

Marc masterpiece

The Walker’s painting is “one of Franz Marc’s great masterpieces,” said Peter Nisbet, chief curator at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, N.C., and an expert on 20th-century German art who was lead curator of the 2001 exhibit.

“Horses were an obsession for him,” Nisbet said. “He was trying to experience the world through the eyes of an animal and, while the idea was not very coherent, it was a powerful expression of the desire to experience the primitive, the unmediated, and the expressive. I would take his color symbolism with a pinch of salt because artists often have an idea that they justify later, but the blue horses are among the more mystical of his pictures.”

Marc and his Russian colleague Wassily Kandinsky associated circles with harmony and balance while linking red to matter, yellow to female attributes, and blue to masculine and spiritual qualities.

As a patriotic war hero, Marc (1880-1916) was an unlikely figure to be condemned by the Nazis for producing “degenerate un-German” art, a label under which they mocked his and other avant-garde art in an infamous 1937 exhibition. A naive idealist, he volunteered as a German artillery sergeant in World War I because, like many European intellectuals, he believed the war would “purify” the culture by ridding it of materialism, nationalism and bourgeois complacency.

He was killed in the battle of Verdun. That sacrifice did not protect his art from Hitler’s henchmen, who confiscated 130 Marc works from German museums along with thousands of modernist pieces they later destroyed or sold abroad to raise money for the Reich.

No Nazi taint to Walker work

The Walker’s painting was never among the Nazis’ loot. By 1919 it was owned by a Zurich collector who may have purchased it from Marc’s widow. He published high-quality lithographic reproductions of the picture that spread its fame throughout Europe.

In 1938 it was for sale in a London exhibition, parts of which toured the United States as examples of art banned in Germany. Susan Walker, a daughter-in-law of the museum’s founder, bought the picture in December 1941 from Nieren­dorf Gallery in New York.

By then the picture was so famous that the New York Times ran a story about the Minneapolis triumph headlined “City Gets Famous Blue Horses Hitler Rejected.”

The headline was wrong, of course, because Hitler never had his mitts on the picture. He did hate modern art, though, and once ranted about “un-German” artists who painted “blue meadows, green sky, clouds of sulphur-yellow.”

The painting is on loan through Feb. 10 at the Neue Galerie, a New York City museum specializing in Germanic art. Starting next September it will be featured at the Walker in a yearlong show celebrating the museum’s 75th anniversary as a center of modernism.