Collector in talks with claimants over art looted by Nazis

Financial Times 17 February 2014
By Jeevan Vasagar in Berlin

A reproduction of Max Liebermann's 'Zwei Reiter am Strand'A reproduction of Max Liebermann's 'Zwei Reiter am Strand' 

Six claimants seeking artworks stolen from their families by the Nazis are in talks with German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, his spokesman said on Monday.

More than 1,200 pieces, allegedly looted by the Nazis, were found in Mr Gurlitt’s Munich apartment.

The talks follow the launch of a website where Mr Gurlitt, whose art dealer father collected works confiscated by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, gives his version of events following the seizure of the trove during a customs raid in 2012.

The discovery of the art hoard, including paintings by Picasso, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, was not revealed until it was disclosed by Focus magazine late last year.

The website, created after discussions with his lawyer and legal guardian in response to intense worldwide interest in the case, features a signed statement in German from 81-year-old Mr Gurlitt where he says: “Some of the things reported about my collection and me are not correct, or not quite correct. Therefore my lawyers, my legal guardian and I want to set out information to ground the discussion about my collection and myself in fact.”

He adds: “So much has happened, and is still happening, in the past weeks and months. All I wanted was to live with my pictures, in peace and quiet.”

The website states that, after the works are returned to him by the German authorities, Mr Gurlitt is prepared to consider reaching “fair and equitable solutions” with the heirs of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

This would apply in cases where there are “qualified, comprehensible and justifiable” restitution claims, the site states.

Stephan Holzinger, Mr Gurlitt’s spokesman, said in a telephone interview that the collector was in talks with six parties about restitution. The artworks under discussion include “Femme assise” by Henri Matisse, claimed by the heirs of the modern art dealer Paul Rosenberg; the Max Liebermann painting “Riders on the Beach”, which is claimed by the heirs of David Friedmann, a Jewish businessman; two works by Otto Dix which probably belonged to the Jewish collector Ismar Littman; and the collection of Fritz Salo Glaser, a Jewish lawyer from Dresden.

At least 13 of the Munich artworks were part of Mr Glaser’s collection, according to provenance details published by the German authorities.

The website states in English that: “There are no legal grounds that would compel Cornelius Gurlitt to return the so-called looted art.” Under German law there is a statute of limitations of 30 years “after the first instance of theft”, the collector’s site says. German authorities have proposed a law that would lift this statute.

The website states that “at most 3 per cent” of the artworks confiscated from Mr Gurlitt’s Munich home are under “genuine suspicion” of being looted art. This is equivalent to about 40 paintings, Mr Holzinger, said.

Following news last week that about 60 more artworks had been found at Mr Gurlitt’s second home in Austria, his team had received another 450 media requests, Mr Holzinger said.

Mr Gurlitt’s site says that 1,280 artworks were seized from his home, fewer than the 1,406 originally cited by German authorities. The collector’s spokesman said the higher figure included items such as business catalogues, which related to the artworks but were not part of the collection.

The website statements are the first time that Mr Gurlitt has disclosed his views since giving an interview to German magazine Der Spiegel last year, where he said he had not watched television since 1963 and had never gone online.

German authorities said about 380 of the Munich works have been identified as seized from German museums by the Nazis. According to the Gurlitt website, 290 of these were “definitely formerly part of public collections”. This would mean that they were legally acquired by Mr Gurlitt’s father, who was permitted by the Nazis to trade in art confiscated from museums.
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