The leader of Germany's Jewish community on Thursday slammed a decision by authorities to return hundreds of paintings to a recluse accused of hoarding priceless artworks stolen by the Nazis.
AFP quoted the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, as having said the aim by prosecutors to give back some 300 works as early as next week was an “irresponsible choice.”
"After the whole thing was handled over 18 months nearly conspiratorially, the hasty reaction for a general return is certainly also the wrong one," Graumann told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, stressing that the case had a "moral and historical dimension."
Earlier this week, the chief prosecutor in the southern city of Augsburg, who is investigating 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt on charges including tax evasion, acknowledged that many of the hundreds of works confiscated from his home in February 2012 clearly belonged to him outright.
Prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz said he had asked a task force working on the spectacular find to identify such paintings "as soon as possible".
The head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, told AFP this week that the decision to quickly give Gurlitt several works before making headway on the provenance of the looted art in the stash was "outrageous."
Gurlitt is the son and 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.
Customs police seized the works, including masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, during the raid last year on Gurlitt's flat in Munich.
Authorities had initially said that the haul included 1,406 artworks but a spokesman for Nemetz told AFP that because some of the sketches could no longer be counted as separate works, the official total was now about 1,280.
Prosecutors were set on Thursday to post pictures and titles of nearly 600 works in the hoard thought to have been looted from Jewish families by the Nazis on an official website, www.lostart.de.
The remaining artworks, those seized by the Nazis from museums and galleries as avant-garde "degenerate" art, will remain under wraps for now as the investigation continues, authorities said, according to AFP.
The case only came to light this month in a magazine article, drawing sharp criticism from victims of Nazi looting who believe their long-lost works may be in the collection.
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.