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Germany to Boost Efforts to Return Looted Art to Owners

Germany's culture minister says the country will add funding for efforts to return Nazi-looted art to their rightful owners.
By Elad Benari and AFP
First Publish: 1/30/2014, 5:44 AM

Art museum visitors (illustration)
Art museum visitors (illustration)
Flash 90

Germany will boost funding for efforts to return Nazi-looted art to their rightful owners and may invite Jewish representatives to join a mediation body, the government said Wednesday, according to a report by the AFP news agency.

Funding for provenance research of art suspected to have been stolen will be doubled, the new minister of state for culture, Monika Gruetters, was quoted as saying in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily.

She did not specify an amount.

The move follows wide criticism over Germany's handling of the discovery of a vast trove of long-lost masterpieces, many thought to be Nazi loot, found in the Munich flat of an elderly recluse.

Although the more than 1,400 works by masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall were discovered in early 2012, the spectacular find only became known to the public late last year through a news magazine report.

The man who was in possession of the priceless art, Cornelius Gurlitt, 80, is the son of Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who acquired the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s.

Germany has since sped up efforts to locate their rightful owners, publishing images of the pictures on a website, lostart.de.

The elder Gurlitt had been tasked by the Nazis with selling art the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate", or works it had stolen or bought for a pittance under duress, from Jewish collectors.

Gurlitt has told German media that he has no intention of voluntarily returning the paintings and sketches to their former owners.

At one point it was reported 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.

Gruetters also said there were plans to expand the government-backed mediation panel that now hears disputes about artworks of contested provenance, the eight-member Limbach Commission.

The body, which has former German president Richard von Weizsaecker on its board along with a former high court judge, historians and experts, can make recommendations but no binding rulings.

"I can certainly imagine expanding the Limbach Commission and including representatives of Jewish organizations," Gruetters told the newspaper, according to AFP.

She further said that the Gurlitt case and the international criticism it sparked had been a wake-up call for many German art collectors.

"Genuine and responsible Germans were, I believe, rather sensitized by this case," said Gruetters. "There are private persons who are re-examining their collections."

Gurlitt is now saying he is willing to consider claims for some of the artworks that were found in his apartment, his lawyer Hannes Hartung was quoted as telling national news agency DPA.

Hartung said his client "is willing to look closely at the looted art lawsuits and negotiate fair and equitable solutions."

The German state Bavaria recently said it was drafting a national law to ease the return of Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners.

The new legislation would specifically eliminate the statute of limitations applied to stolen property, usually 30 years, that some art collectors have used to protect their holdings from claims.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin has urged Germany to give any Jewish-owned art from a trove discovered in Munich to Jewish or Israeli museums if heirs are not found.