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Germany: Some of Looted Art Trove May be Returned to Munich Man

Some paintings in an art trove looted by the Nazis may be returned to the Munich man in whose apartment they were discovered.
By Elad Benari and AFP
First Publish: 11/11/2013, 6:42 AM

Art museum visitors (Illustrative)
Art museum visitors (Illustrative)
Flash90

German authorities think a good number of the paintings found in an art trove largely looted by the Nazis may ultimately be returned to the Munich man in whose apartment they were discovered, AFP reported Sunday, citing the German magazine Focus.

The more than 1,400 artworks were found in the garbage-strewn apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the octogenarian son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

The story has drawn worldwide interest and a rush by potential rightful owners to stake claims to the confiscated masterpieces.

However, according to Focus, a German customs audit has found that 315 of the works were seized from public museums by Adolf Hitler's regime as part of its crackdown on so-called "degenerate" avant-garde art.

Those works were public property at the time, and neither the museums nor the original owners or their heirs will be able to recover them, the magazine reported.

For 194 other works, documents seized in the apartment may establish that they were sold by Jewish collectors under duress, meaning the owners or their heirs stand a good chance of recovering them, it added.

The customs report also says "doubts exist" as to whether Gurlitt will ever face trial, even though German authorities are investigating him for tax fraud and receiving stolen goods, Focus reported.

Gurlitt, who was present when authorities raided his home in February 2012, was interrogated by police and released without charge.

He reportedly generated income by occasionally selling off paintings handed down to him by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a powerful collector tasked by the Nazis with selling seized works for hard cash.

Gurlitt's father appears to have held on to many of the works, even after an investigation by U.S. forces after the war.

The stash included paintings by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse and previously unknown works by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix.

Experts have predicted that identifying the rightful owners of the trove of art will be an enormous task. The value of the collection has been estimated at $1.3 billion.

Between 1940 and 1944, German forces seized an estimated 100,000 paintings, artworks, tapestries and antiques from the homes of Jews in France, stripped of their rights by the racial laws enforced by the collaborationist government.

Thousands of stolen artworks have since been returned to their owners or their descendants, but many more have never resurfaced.

Two weeks ago an investigation by Dutch museums revealed that 139 of their artworks, including a Matisse and two Kandinsky paintings, may have been stolen by the Nazis.

Last year, a 500-year-old painting auctioned by the French government during the Nazi occupation in World War II was returned to a Jewish family who proved it was sold illegally.

The 16th century Baroque painting was returned to representatives of the family of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe.

Gentilli died in 1940 shortly before the Nazis occupied France. The Vichy government sold the painting, but the sale was deemed illegal.