Germany Sets Up Task Force to Trace Ownership of Nazi-looted Art

970 of the 1,400 works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment to be examined on suspicion that they were stolen

The German government has set up a special task force to locate the owners of the looted artworks discovered in a Munich apartment a year and a half ago.

The panel’s establishment was announced in a statement issued this week by the German Finance Ministry together with the ministries of justice, culture, science and art in the state of Bavaria, where the artworks were located.

The task force will be comprised of six experts in tracing the provenance of artworks. They will work in concert with a research group on “degenerate art” at the Free University of Berlin, under the auspices of the government agency that assists German museums and other institutions in identifying artworks in their collections that were stolen from their owners during the Nazi era.

The statement said that 970 of the 1,400 works found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in 2012 will be examined on suspicion that they were stolen from their original owners by the Nazis; the remaining works are not suspected of being stolen. Of this cache, 380 works have already been identified as ones that the Nazis confiscated during their “Action Against Degenerate Art” campaign in 1937. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a Nazi-era art dealer who was authorized to market “degenerate artworks” overseas on the Nazis’ behalf.

An Internet site, www.lostart.de, will post information on the works being investigated and will be updated regularly, to facilitate efforts to locate the works’ owners. The first list of 25 works, including pictures, was posted on Monday; these are works considered highly likely to have been stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners.

“There were so many hits that the site was overwhelmed,” a staff member of the German Federal Coordination Center for Lost Art, based in Magdeburg, said. She said works would be added to the list gradually. Inquiries from potential heirs or their representatives should be sent to the office of the State Prosecutor in Augsburg at poststelle@sta-a.bayern.de

The German government promised to investigate the provenance of all the artworks as quickly and transparently as possible.

The total value of the artworks found in Gurlitt’s apartment is estimated at billions of euros. Yet they are just a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of artworks the Nazis stole from Jewish owners during their reign. Most were never returned to the owners’ legal heirs.

The current collection was found when German tax inspectors raided Gurlitt’s apartment in February 2012. Customs investigators seized the paintings, sketches and sculptures, dating from the 16th century to the modern period, but stayed silent because they had chanced upon the art during a tax evasion probe, which compels secrecy.

After the spectacular find − which included works by Chagall, Picasso, Matisse and Beckmann − was publicized by the Munich-based Focus magazine earlier this month, the secrecy and the failure to publish a complete list of the works attracted criticism from those who argue that publicizing such finds is crucial to establishing their ownership and returning them to their rightful owners.

AP