Germany to Return Some Looted Artwork to Man Who Held Them
German authorities said Tuesday that they would order the return of several paintings to a recluse accused of hoarding hundreds of priceless artworks stolen by the Nazis, AFP reported.
The announcement was made several days after the man who hid the paintings said he will not give up the works without a fight.
The chief prosecutor in the southern city of Augsburg, who is investigating 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt on charges including tax evasion, acknowledged that some of the more than 1,400 works confiscated from his home in February 2012 clearly belonged to him.
"It is of key importance that works taken in connection with Nazi persecution be identified so that outstanding property claims can be settled and possible previous owners can exercise their rights," prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said in a statement quoted by AFP.
"At the same time, determining the provenance of the paintings also makes possible an identification of those artworks that without a doubt belong to the accused, whose return should be immediately offered to him," he added.
Nemetz said he had asked a task force appointed last week to identify such paintings "as soon as possible."
Gurlitt is the heir of a powerful art dealer tasked by the Nazis with selling works that they stole, extorted or seized in exchange for hard currency, and with handpicking masterpieces for a "Fuehrer Museum" for Adolf Hitler in the Austrian city of Linz that was never built.
The task force said last week that of the 1,406 long-lost paintings, sketches and prints seized at Gurlitt's Munich flat, about 970 were suspected of being looted from Jewish families or taken from museums in a crackdown on avant-garde, "degenerate" art.
Untangling the provenance of the works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Delacroix is expected to be a drawn-out process, complicated by Gurlitt's insistence that he will not give up the works without a fight.
"I will not give anything back voluntarily," he told the German Der Spiegel magazine this week. "I hope this gets resolved soon and I finally get my pictures back."
Gurlitt, who suffers from a heart condition, said he had given state prosecutors investigating him on charges of tax evasion and misappropriation of assets "enough" documents to prove his innocence.
He said he had never committed a crime "and even if I did, it would be covered by the statute of limitations".
Since the discovery of the trove was made public, there have been growing calls on the German government to publish on the Internet an inventory of the artworks.
Previous reports had indicated that some of the found art will likely be returned to Gurlitt, since the works are deemed to have been "public property" at the time the Nazi regime seized them.
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.
Experts have predicted that identifying the rightful owners of the vast art trove would be an enormous if not impossible task.