BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany on Wednesday returned three art works to a descendant of a Jewish French collector who owned them until his death in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France.
Two of the pictures came from a trove of works held by Cornelius Gurlitt, which was discovered in 2012 by German tax inspectors in Munich. His father had been an art dealer and sold what the Nazis dismissed as “degenerate” art.
At a ceremony in Berlin, culture minister Monika Gruetters said the return of the pictures was a small but important step.
“We Germans know of our wrongdoing and know that we can never put right the misery. But at least returning these kinds of art works are small but important and necessary steps towards justice in one small area,” she said.
A great niece of the pictures’ owner, Parisian lawyer and art collector Armand Dorville, said she was very touched by their return.
“If pictures could speak, if they could tell us their journey, they would tall us an incredible amount about robbery, theft, fraudulent sales and what we can learn from that,” she said at the ceremony, asking not to be identified.
She thanked the German government for its efforts to discover the provenance of artwork and return them where possible, especially 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.
“You are fulfilling the obligation to keep alive the memory and that this is taking place today on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is ... a symbol,” she said.
The two pictures from the Gurlitt collection were a watercolor entitled “Lady in an Evening Dress” and an oil painting “Portrait of a Lady” by Jean-Louis Forain. The third work, “Amazonian on Rearing Horse”, was a drawing by Constantin Guys which had been in private ownership.
All three had belonged to Dorville, who sought refuge at his estate in the Dordogne in unoccupied France in June 1940, where he died about a year later. Other members of his family perished at the Auschwitz death camp.
When anti-Semitic legislation was imposed in German-occupied France, Dorville’s heirs decided to sell the pictures at auction in Nice in 1942. It was not clear who bought them, but the family were not allowed to use the proceeds, which instead went to the Vichy government.
Gurlitt inherited the art works from his father and stored them in his Munich apartment for decades. Switzerland’s Kunst Museum Bern learned in 2014, the day after Gurlitt’s death, that it had been named as the sole heir to 1,500 works, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
The German government said 13 art works had now been returned to their lawful owners after being identified as looted art.