Nearly four years after an astounding Nazi-era hoard of some 1,200 works of art were discovered in the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt, the German task force investigating the origin of the pieces presented their final report on Thursday. They announced that only five works have proved to be looted by the Nazis thus far.
The government-appointed panel defended its slow progress, with chairwoman Dr. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel (above, left) saying that they had a "duty we own to the victims of crimes during the Nazi period," as she handed the hard drive with her report to culture commissioner Monika Gruetters (above, right).
The task force investigated the 500 works of suspicious origin found among the trove hidden by the late Gurlitt, a lifetime collector whose father was an influential art dealer during the Third Reich. Described as an eccentric recluse by the press, Gurlitt managed to hide the works for decades until a tax probe uncovered them in 2012.
The find only became known to the public a year later, however, through extensive reporting in the German media. Gurlitt passed away in 2014, before the matter could be settled, and named the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland as his "sole heir," further complicating matters for the descendants of Jewish art owners who had their acquisitions stolen by the Nazis.
Owners' claims flood in, slow progress decried
Berggreen-Merkel told the press that they had already received over 200 inquiries and claims for restitution. She assured reporters that the new team coming on to deal with the matter would continue the process of going through records to find the rightful owners.
Responding to criticism that Germany has been much too slow sorting out the details of who the artworks belong to, Monika Gruetters said "I can understand the impatience of the heirs and their families," but reminded that public that "scientific diligence" was also important alongside the "interests of the victims."
Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, was not convinced and slammed the investigation as "meager and not satisfactory," adding that he "had expected Germany to do better."
Matisse's "Seated Woman" is likely the most famous in the collection, and was thought to have been lost forever
Last year, a long-lost painting by Henri Matisse, "Seated Woman," was returned to the family of the deceased art dealer Paul Rosenberg, and Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on a Beach," which was taken from David Friedmann in 1938 the day after Kristallnacht, was handed to his heirs before going up for auction.
While the Bern museum has agreed to honor an agreement between the German government and Gurlitt to return plundered works to their rightful owners, a cousin who has challenged Gurlitt's will has slowed down the process, with a ruling from a Munich court still pending.