Germany is to step up efforts to trace Holocaust victims’ art in public museums, the parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s planned new government agreed Wednesday, as fresh details emerged on a Munich recluse’s confiscated stash of paintings.
Germany has been embarrassed by the discovery of the art hoard, which was built up by a Nazi-era art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt.
The parties agreed to increase funding for art-provenance experts who unravel the histories of art collections in museum storerooms, but set no figure on the money. Most museums cannot afford the highly paid experts who can spot formerly Jewish-owned art.
Up to 600 of the Gurlitt paintings and drawings are suspected of having been bought cheap from Jewish owners or from German museums that were dumping art deemed “degenerate” by Nazi censors.
A private owner is not required to return such art: Jewish claims have expired with time, and museums never had redress.
The stash of artwork seized from Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius, is worth less than 50 million euros (about 70 million dollars) today, a leading art collection house said, far less than the 1 billion euros claimed in a breaking news report at the start of November.
The works drawn on paper, which comprise the majority of the collection, are valued at up to 30 million euros, Munich Auction House Chief Robert Ketterer told dpa.
The collection – of 1,406 or 1,280 items depending on how it is counted – contained works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and other major 20th-century painters. It was seized in early 2012, but authorities did not make this public at the time.
So far almost 120 pictures have been listed on Lostart.de, Germany’s official databank for art lost or stolen during World War II.
It is unknown how long it will take to identify and publish the works, said Ketterer. A team of four people could normally catalogue a collection of Gurlitt’s size in less than five weeks.
In Munich, Bavarian state Justice Minister Winfried Bausback called for a law change so that Jewish heirs could reclaim art from private owners such as Gurlitt in Germany despite the expiry of terms under the statute of limitations.
Germany wants to return 400 artworks to Cornelius Gurlitt that were either painted by members of the Gurlitt family or created after the war. But a prosecutor said Cornelius Gurlitt, who is under investigation over tax allegations, was not returning calls to arrange a handover.
The political parties in Berlin ignored calls for German museums to obtain a right of redress to reclaim “degenerate” art from Gurlitt. Some museums have filed claims, complaining that they are victims of Nazi injustice too.
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin and Dorothea Huelsmeier, dpa