Germany announced it would form a task force to investigate works of art seized from a reclusive collector who is thought to have inherited a trove of works lost during the Nazi era.
Officials seized the 1406 works from Cornelius Gurlitt, who was spotted over the weekend going shopping in his local supermarket in Munich, as part of a tax investigation. Under international pressure, the authorities have now said they will examine claims from former owners of the masterpieces.
Two paintings by German artist Otto Dix, among a hoard of stolen paintings discovered in Munich
Officials said 970 of the works would be examined. Out of 590 works feared to have been gained in Nazi-related exchanges, 25 would be urgently examined by the task force of six experts. Another 380 works are thought to have been seized by the Nazis for a notorious 1937 exhibition of "degenerate art".
Images of the 25 images thought most likely to have been stolen by the Nazis were displayed on a website, www.lostart.de, but the site was struggling to stay online on Tuesday.
Mr Gurlitt was on Monday reported to have written a letter to a news magazine requesting that his name never appear again on its pages.
The appartment belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich (Barcroft)
Der Spiegel magazine said Mr Gurlitt had written a letter explaining he did not like his father Hildebrand Gurlitt being associated with the Nazis. Hildebrand had been tasked with collecting “degenerate art” across occupied Europe for the Nazis during the Second World War.
Hildebrand’s art collection, which included works by Chagall and Picasso, was widely thought to have been destroyed in during the war, but survived and was secretly passed to his son Cornelius after his death in a car accident in 1956.
German authorities have come under fire for not acting fast enough to return the works to their rightful owners after it emerged last week they kept the discovery quiet for nearly two years. Now calls are growing for the entire collection to join the initial 25 images displayed online.
"The police and politicians must immediately make an inventory and put the entire find online," Ronald Lauder, head of the head of the World Jewish Congress, told Welt newspaper. "Everyone will then have the opportunity to see what's there."
“There are no moral questions here; it’s about justice and injustice," he added. "Property was stolen. And it has to go back to the rightful owners.”
When tax investigators and police raided Cornelius’ Munich flat in 2012, they also found his father Hildebrand’s account book containing the names of Jewish collectors whose pictures he had confiscated, according to Focus magazine.
Yet despite this lead, German customs officials are doubtful that the works can be given back. Most of the paintings thought to have been stolen by Hildebrand, came from museums and not from individuals, the magazine said citing an internal document.
The report, sent by customs officials to the German Finance Ministry, states that the 315 “degenerate art” paintings in the collection were acquired “exclusively from state and municipal museums”, and so restitution claims of former owners were “not enforceable.”
Mr Gurlitt may therefore be allowed to keep the works and even the charges of tax evasion against him could be dropped due to a lack of evidence against him, according to the same document, said Focus.
In the face of mounting pressure meanwhile, the German government said it will move forward with establishing the provenance of the paintings as a step to finding their rightful owners.
“The German government will … push forward with the research into the origins of the art works in the Gurlitt collection,” said German Culture Ministry spokesman Hagen Phillip Wolf on Sunday.
Where authorities are unclear about the origin of a painting, he said, it will “immediately be put on display” online.
Outgoing German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle meanwhile, called for greater transparency in dealing with the find, which he warned could have lasting damage to Germany’s international friendships.
“We don’t want to underestimate the sensitivity of the topic in the world,” he said during a visit to India on Monday.
“We have to be careful not to gamble away the trust we’ve built up over the last decades. The guiding principle of the hour is transparency,” added Mr Westerwelle.