The story of the more than 1,400 artworks found in the rubbish-strewn apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the octogenarian son of a Nazi-era art dealer, has drawn worldwide interest and a rush by potential rightful owners to stake claims to the confiscated masterpieces.
But a German customs audit has found that 315 of the works were seized from public museums by Adolf Hitler’s regime as part of its crackdown on so-called “degenerate” avant-garde art, said Focus news magazine, which broke the story last week.
Those works were public property at the time, and neither the museums nor the original owners or their heirs will be able to recover them, Focus reported, suggesting that ownership may fall to Gurlitt.
But for 194 other works, documents seized in the apartment may establish that they were sold by Jewish collectors under duress – meaning the owners or their heirs stand a good chance of recovering them, it added.
The customs report also says “doubts exist” as to whether Gurlitt will ever face trial, even though German authorities are investigating him for tax fraud and receiving stolen goods, Focus reported.
Gurlitt, who was present when authorities raided his home in February last year, was interrogated by police and released without charge.
A recluse, he generated income by occasionally selling off paintings handed down to him by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a powerful collector tasked by the Nazis with selling seized works for hard cash.
Gurlitt’s father appears to have held on to many of the works, even after an investigation by American occupying forces after the war.The stash included paintings by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri Matisse and previously unknown works by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix.