Nov 24, 2014 9:32 AM
Swiss museum accepts priceless Gurlitt art trove
The Associated Press
BERLIN (AP) A Swiss museum agreed Monday to accept a priceless collection of long-hidden art from the late German collector Cornelius Gurlitt, saying it will work closely with Germany to make sure that any pieces looted by the Nazis are returned to their Jewish owners.
Three works in the collection that have already been identified as looted art by Henri Matisse, Max Liebermann and Carl Spitzweg will be returned immediately, German culture minister Monika Gruetters said.
In tandem with the Swiss announcement, Germany published the business ledgers of Gurlitt's father Hildebrand, who had worked closely with the Nazi regime, online Monday. Many potential heirs and art experts had demanded the move to help in their search for possible looted art. The ledgers cover the years from 1937-45.
German authorities in 2012 seized 1,280 pieces of art from Gurlitt's Munich apartment while investigating a tax case, including works by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall. The development had shocked the art world many of the works had not been seen in decades and experts feared they had been lost or destroyed.
Gurlitt had inherited much of the art from his father, a famous dealer who helped the Nazis in the 1930s sell art the regime considered "degenerate" including Impressionist and modern masterpieces outside of Germany for cash. Some of the works had been seized by the Nazis from museums, while others were stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell.
Gurlitt died in May at 81, designating Switzerland's Kunstmuseum Bern as his sole heir.
A special task force already looking into the provenance of the Gurlitt art will now work closely with the Kunstmuseum Bern. Germany will cover the costs of the research and work to return looted art as quickly as possible, Gruetters said in a joint news conference with the Swiss.
"As part of our special German responsibility toward the victims of the Nazi dictatorship, we want to ensure justice is done not only in the legal framing of the agreement, but also morally," she said.
Kunstmuseum Bern's board president, Christoph Schaeublin, told reporters in Berlin the decision to accept the collection came only after long, difficult deliberations.
"The ultimate aim was to clarify how the Kunstmuseum Bern could meet the responsibilities imposed upon them by the bequest," Schaeublin said.
In addition to the works found in Munich, more than 200 artworks were found at Gurlitt's house in Salzburg, Austria. In the cases where there is any suspicion that it is Nazi-looted art, the Bern museum has the right to decide whether to turn over these works to the German task force.
One of Gurlitt's cousins has also filed a claim on the collection, which a Munich court said would have to be sorted out before the art goes anywhere.
Julius Schoeps, a prominent German-Jewish scholar who believes art stolen from his family may be among the Gurlitt collection, told The Associated Press he welcomed Germany's move to put Hildebrand Gurlitt's account books online, which he said could help him learn more about his own potential claim.
But Schoeps said the new agreement seems to make it even more complicated for possible heirs to retrieve their property.
"They didn't say a word about who we can turn to for help," said Schoeps, who attended the Berlin announcement. "More and more institutions are getting involved in this the German government task force, the Bern museum, the Lost Art Database in Magdeburg I find this very irritating."
Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said the German government's Gurlitt task force's work to date has been opaque. He urged that it make its findings, and how those conclusions were reached, available to the public.
"The major aspects of the agreement are quite positive, the key will be the implementation," he said in a telephone interview from New York. "This promises lifting the veil of secrecy, so we'll have to see."
David Rising contributed to this report.
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