German Hoarder of Nazi-confiscated Art Mulls 'Restitution'

Claims for restitution pending review to determine whether they qualify as 'looted art' cases.

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A lawyer for the reclusive collector of a massive trove of art found in Germany said Monday that he is considering claims for the restitution of some of the works as he seeks "fair and just solutions" following the seizure of the collection.

Authorities found more than 1,400 works of art at Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich apartment in 2012 while investigating a tax case; they kept the find secret until it was publicized by a German magazine in early November. They have been checking whether hundreds of pieces were seized by the Nazis, but plan to return works belonging indisputably to Gurlitt.

Gurlitt inherited the collection — which includes works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Pierre-Auguste Renoir — from his father Hildebrand, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis.

Officials have said they hope to reach an agreement with Gurlitt on what to do with the works, though there was little sign of movement last year. Hannes Hartung, a Munich-based lawyer, said he started representing Gurlitt earlier this month and has been tasked with examining restitution claims.

"There are around five or six restitution demands that have to be looked at closely," Hartung said in a telephone interview. He said that the process is at an early stage and he cannot yet say for sure whether those cases qualify as "looted art." He didn't detail which works were involved though he said discussions are under way over one by Henri Matisse.

Gurlitt is "interested in fair and just solutions" to claims regarding works in the collection, which could include restitution, financial settlements or a joint sale of works, Hartung said. "Of course, that always depends on the moral implications as well — each case is unique."

The elder Gurlitt, who died in 1956, was one of four art dealers commissioned by the Nazis to sell what is known as "degenerate art" — items seized from museums because they were deemed a corrupting influence on the German people. Authorities said last year they believe some 380 of the works found in his son's apartment were "degenerate art," and they were checking whether another 590 were one way or another looted by the Nazis.

Hartung said he received documents last week from a task force of experts put together by German authorities to check the art works.

"Our assessment is that there are only a very, very few critical works, and that there is a huge discrepancy between how authorities have depicted it publicly and reality," he said.

Gurlitt was quoted in November as telling German weekly Der Spiegel that he was "not giving anything back voluntarily." Hartung disputed that account.

Paintings by Chagall, Rodin, Matisse and others were among 1,400 artworks found at Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich home. Credit: AFP
Hildebrand Gurlitt, father of Cornelius Gurlitt, 1925.Credit: AP

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