Modern Art as Nazi Plunder

New York Times 14 April 2014

By The Editorial Board

German officials are scrambling to recover from their mishandling of a trove of artistic masterworks, including pieces reputedly looted from Jewish collectors, that had been hidden away since the Nazi era. The 1,280 works, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Courbet, were discovered and seized two years ago in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old son of a dealer who bought and sold art during the Hitler regime’s crackdown on “degenerate” works, when Jewish collectors were forced to sell under duress or were robbed outright.

Bavarian authorities had kept discovery of the Munich Art Trove a secret while they conducted an investigation into possible tax fraud. But word leaked out last year, sparking outrage. The controversy is not likely to diminish under an agreement announced last week that provides for the art to be returned to Mr. Gurlitt’s technical ownership while a panel of art specialists is given a year to settle the provenance of questionable pieces.

This may be no easy task. The agreement allows the experts to examine Mr. Gurlitt’s claims to legal ownership of the artworks, with an aim toward returning any looted works. Mr. Gurlitt’s lawyer insists there may be very few such pieces in the collection, and fewer than a dozen claims of ownership have emerged. More claims are certain to be made as the full content of the trove is finally made public.

The discovery of the trove has caused the German government to relax its 30-year statute of limitations on making claims to stolen property. It has also spurred popular interest in what Hitler denounced as “degenerate” art. A current exhibition in New York is drawing long lines outside the Neue Galerie for “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.”

If more than a year is needed for a full and fair study of the Munich trove, the German authorities should make that happen.
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