Jewish Family Claims Nazi-looted Artwork Recovered in Germany

Heirs of a German-Jewish businessman say officials never told them of recovery of Max Liebermann picture.

The heirs of a Jewish businessman who was persecuted by the Nazis have asked prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany for one of the more than 1,400 art works found in a Munich apartment nearly two years, but only disclosed last week. The family of David Friedmann hopes for the return of "Two Riders on the Beach," a 1901 painting by the German-Jewish artist Max Liebermann that was part of Friedmann's collection and that was lost for 70 years ago.

Members of the family saw the painting briefly in television coverage of the news conference at which the discovery of the cache was announced.

Friedmann’s heirs had reported the missing painting on Germany's Lost Art Internet Database, a registry of art works which, as the website says "as a result of persecution under the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners." Nevertheless, in the 18 months since the painting was found in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the elderly son of German art dealer Hildebrandt Gurlitt, Friedmann's heirs were never notified.

Friedmann was a wealthy Jewish businessman who lived in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). His collection included paintings by Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro and Raphael. He died of natural causes in 1942, but his wife and daughter were murdered by the Nazis. To this day, the fate of his collection remains unknown. His collection was confiscated during the war, some of it later falling into the hands of Gurlitt, who collaborated with the Nazis.

Meanwhile, the man himself appears to have disappeared, only days after it was reported that a treasure trove of Nazi-looted art had been found. German authorities say they don't know where he is.

The cache, consisting of some 1,400 works the Nazis looted from Jews in World War II, was seized by German customs officials about two years ago. Dating from the 16th century to the avant-garde, the art includes previously unknown paintings by Marc Chagall and Otto Dix, among the 20th century's most celebrated artists, as well as by Canaletto, Courbet, Picasso, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec, an official said.

Cornelius Gurlitt, who kept the art works in his Munich apartment, has been under investigation in the past two years in Bavaria for tax evasion. The art work were discovered in February 2012 in a search by German authorities of the home.

"We cannot say where the accused is, we do not know ourselves," said Reinhard Nemetz of the public prosecutor's office in Augsburg at a news conference this week.

The authorities have not explained why it took them nearly two years to announce the massive find. The paintings, which were found in generally good condition, are being stored in an undisclosed location and they will not be published online.

Some German and Austrian media have speculated that Gurlitt, who also has a house in Salzburg, is dead. "Maybe they'll find his body at home," Gurlitt's Austrian neighbors told the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten.

"We've never seen him," a young couple who lives near Gurlitt's Munich apartment told Germany's Focus magazine, which revealed the find last weekend and prompted authorities to go public.

Gurlitt's neighbors in Salzburg said they hadn't seen him either. "It took 45 years until I spoke to him for the first time," Mr. Ludescher, a neighbor of the missing art collector for some 50 years, told Focus. "I asked him if he owned the house and he said 'no comment'."

The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that some of the Nazi-looted art presented in Munich on Tuesday had been confiscated from Hildebrandt Gurlitt by the Allied Forces in 1945.

After the war Hildebrandt Gurlitt was questioned about his work as an art collector during the war, but in 1950 the paintings were returned to him, the paper reports. He died in 1956 and left the collection to his son Cornelius, who is believed to have sold off some of the works to support himself. The estimated value of the cache is more than 1 billion Euros.