Uncovered Trove Of Nazi-Looted Art Spurs Massive Hunt

AP 6 November 2013
By Jill Lawless and Kirsten Grieshaber

LONDON — Finding the treasure hoard was just the start of the hunt.

Phones in the cramped London offices of the Art Loss Register have been ringing off the hook since German prosecutors announced what the register's chairman, Julian Radcliffe, calls "the biggest cache of illegally stored art since the end of the war."

"People who are registered with us have been ringing to say, 'You're on the case, aren't you?'" Radcliffe said Wednesday.

The flurry of activity follows the discovery in Germany of more than 1,400 artworks — some by modern masters such as Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso — stacked in the Munich apartment of an elderly man. For families whose treasures were stolen by Germany's Nazi regime, the discovery has raised hopes — but also stirred frustration.

Citing an ongoing tax probe into the apartment's resident, German authorities have not revealed many details about the vast majority of the paintings, drawings, engravings, woodcuts and prints they have found. That has sparked a clamor for information about the trove from art hunters, museums and the lawyers of those seeking to recover looted art.

At a news conference Tuesday, officials described only a fraction of the spectacular find, including — tantalizingly — previously unknown paintings by Matisse, Chagall and German artist Otto Dix.

The trove was found in early 2012 at the home of a man whom officials didn't name but who has been identified in media reports as 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt. His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was an art dealer who acted for the Nazis in the 1930s to sell art considered "degenerate" by the regime — including Impressionist and modern masterpieces — outside of Germany in return for millions in cash.

Some of the works were seized from museums, while others were stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell.

Gerhard Finckh, director of the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal, western Germany, called for an inventory of the Gurlitt trove to be published online quickly so museums can find out whether their stolen works are among them.

"The Nazis seized almost 500 works at the time — that was a serious blow to our collection," said Finckh, whose museum lost pieces by Dix, Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky and many others. "If our works are among the discovered art, we will do everything to get them back."

Jewish groups also have called for the works to be made public immediately so the families of Holocaust victims can recover art that was taken from them.

German spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday that Chancellor Angela Merkel's government favored releasing information about the Munich artworks that "may have been confiscated from people persecuted by the Nazis." But he gave no details or timeframe for that to happen.

That leaves people seeking the return of artworks with no quick path to restitution.

Imke Gielen, a Berlin lawyer specializing in restitution claims, said prospective claimants should approach the Bavarian prosecutors with queries about specific works. She said it was vital to prove ownership of the artwork until Jan. 30, 1933, the day the Nazis seized power. Any art lost after that date is presumed to have been sold under pressure or seized outright, boosting the chances of restitution.

Others will turn to the Art Loss Register, which maintains a database of several hundred thousand works of stolen or missing art, and specializes in reuniting them with their owners.

The organization's team of art sleuths, historians and legal experts was busy Wednesday trying to match works on its database with the items found in Germany. Radcliffe says it has already found one match, but won't say what artwork it is.

Radcliffe says the group hopes to send a staffer to Germany to compare the works found there against its database.

For the moment, many mysteries remain.

The reclusive Gurlitt seems to have had no job or visible means of support. He sold at least one painting, Max Beckmann's "The Lion Tamer," through a Cologne auction house two years ago. Experts want to know whether he sold others, and where they are now.

Where, for that matter, is Gurlitt? Prosecutors said Wednesday they are not currently in contact with him, although Radcliffe thinks they will seek to strike a deal with him to hand over his artworks in lieu of a huge tax bill.

"It would be a massive scandal" if Gurlitt was allowed to keep the art collection, Radcliffe said.

Amid the uncertainty, prospective owners can be reassured on one count. A German customs investigator says the works were "professionally stored and in a very good condition."

Radcliffe said while works on paper could be fragile, oil paintings on canvas or board should be largely undamaged after decades in storage.

"Oil paintings are fairly robust," he said. "They don't really deteriorate."
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