Berlin (dpa) – The German state of Bavaria called Friday on Cornelius Gurlitt to offer an amicable division of his fabled private Munich collection of 1,400 pictures, believed to include masterpieces looted by the Nazis, and avoid a legal quagmire.
Prosecutors will next week post images online of all of the 590 items suspected of having been seized from private Jewish owners or removed by Nazi censors from German museums. But lawyers say there may be no legal basis for restoring them to their former owners.
The rest of collection, inherited from art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died in 1956, is believed to be untainted. Some works were not painted until after the fall of the Nazis in 1945. Germany uncovered the collection last year as part of a tax-evasion inquiry. “Whoever cooperates in restoring the former assets of Jewish citizens and other persecuted persons deserves respect and praise,” Winfried Bausback, justice minister of Bavaria, told the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Asked who should approach Gurlitt, Bausback said, “What matters is talking to him, not who does it.” Germany has been under fire for keeping secret the seizure of the collection, which includes many paintings thought to have been lost.
Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, rejected accusations that Berlin had been slow to respond to inquiries since the first public disclosure earlier this month. He said the federal government had put inquirers in contact with leading experts, adding that Merkel’s principal arts aide,
Bernd Neumann, was totally committed to investigating and returning looted art.
Legal experts say the collection poses a legal quandary since potential claims expired long ago.
Lawyers say only the German state, not private collectors, is legally committed to returning art that was sold for a pittance by Jewish owners or confiscated by the Gestapo. Art sold by museums while they were under Nazi management cannot be reclaimed.
Images of 25 items have been put online. Images of all of the 590 items that have attracted interest from art experts and lawyers worldwide will appear on the website next week.
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin