The heir of a Nazi-era art dealer said Monday he had struck an accord with the German government setting a one-year deadline on provenance research for his vast hoard of paintings.
The agreement more than two years after their shock discovery in a customs probe means that Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, will likely get back many of the
hundreds of artworks that were seized by German authorities, according to AFP.
But the deal with the federal and Bavarian state governments will also speed up the search for rightful owners of the works, many of which are believed to have been looted from Jewish collectors under Adolf Hitler.
Gurlitt had stashed around 1,400 artworks in his Munich apartment including long-lost paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall.
"Works on which provenance research cannot be completed by the task force within the year will be returned to Cornelius Gurlitt," the parties said in a joint statement, referring to a government body researching ownership claims.
"If restitution claims are made or could arise at the end of the year deadline, the works will remain held by a trust."
Gurlitt will also be able to appoint one expert to the task force to ensure his interests are represented, while the costs for the provenance research will be picked up by the state.
More than 200 paintings, sketches and sculptures discovered in a separate home of Gurlitt's in Salzburg, Austria including works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Gauguin are not covered by the German agreement.
Gurlitt had already said last month that he was willing to cooperate with claimants to return artworks. But he had yet to reach an accord with the German authorities, who had confiscated the Munich works in February 2012.
"The whole world has been watching to see what answer we find to these questions and this deal is a good answer," Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback said.
Federal Culture Minister Monika Gruetters was also satisfied with the accord, saying it "established the foundation for fair and just" resolutions of claim disputes.
Jewish Art, Worldwide Controversy
Gurlitt's father Hildebrand acquired most of the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, when he worked as an art dealer tasked by the Nazis with selling stolen works and avant-garde art the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate".
The remarkable finds in Cornelius Gurlitt's homes have touched off a series of claims by the heirs of Jews whose works were systematically plundered or extorted from them under the Third Reich.
German officials stated that the process of locating the art's original owners would be long and difficult, and outraged Jewish groups by delaying the announcement for over a year and even returning some works to the defendant in the case. Israel has already asked German officials to keep the art in Jewish hands in the event that original owners are not found.
In the meantime, negotiations are underway with the descendants of prominent Paris art collector Paul Rosenberg on a claim to a priceless Matisse painting.But earlier Monday, Gurlitt representatives said a second, rival claimant had come forward for the portrait called "Sitting Woman". His lawyer Christoph Edel said he was thus "legally obliged" to review the demand or risk legal action "should the painting be given to the wrong person by accident."
"But there has been absolutely no change to our clearly stated position that the paintings in question will be returned," Edel said.
The Matisse, believed to have been painted in the mid-1920s, shows a stout,dark-haired woman in a floral dress sitting in a chair in a room with vibrant wall coverings.
Gurlitt's spokesman said the government-appointed task force for the artworks had also not yet determined the provenance of the Matisse but that his team aimed to resolve the issue as soon as possible. He told AFP he could not reveal the identity of the new claimant or even his or her nationality.
A lawyer for Rosenberg, Christopher A. Marinello, expressed surprise that news of a rival demand had been released to the media while he had not received any documentation from the task force "regarding an alleged second claim."
"Therefore, we cannot comment on what information is being released to the media other than it is highly unusual for professional and responsible researchers to take this approach," he said.