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Culture

'Story of the paintings belongs in public sphere'

A cache of artwork assumed to have been lost is raising questions: Why didn't authorities announce the find last year and what will happen to the paintings now? Lawyer and art expert Markus Stötzel has some answers.

Customs agents found some 1,400 valuable paintings in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of the well-known art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died in 1956. The paintings were reportedly first discovered in 2012, but authorities kept the find under wraps. It remains unclear how many of the paintings were works stolen from museums and private collections during the Nazi era. Several Jewish families have contacted authorities to claim works that were taken from them, including art collector Alfred Flechtheim.

DW: You have handled the return of artworks looted by the Nazis for to the descendants of their proper, Jewish owners. Did the recent find in Bavaria surprise you

A painting by German artist Max Liebermann 'Zwei Reiter am Strande' (Two Horsemen at the Beach) is beamed to a wall November 5, 2013, at an Augsburg courtroom during a news conference of state prosecutor Reinhard Nemetz and expert art historian Meike Hoffmann from the Berlin Free University. (REUTERS/Michael Dalder)

The found works could be worth a billion euros altogether

Markus Stötzel: Yes and no. The scope of it surprised me - that the collection was apparently intact over decades. These are works of art that had long been thought to have disappeared. Works of art that are certainly invaluable. This is, in fact, a unique situation.

On the other hand, there have been cases where works of art that were assumed to have been destroyed, or thought to be lost, turned up on the market or were recovered through the efforts of investigative journalists. It's a simple fact that due to the immense theft of art committed by the Nazis, there could still be works today that are laying around in collections. Gurlitt, in this respect, is certainly not unique.

Customs officials are reported to have made the discovery 2012, but declined to say anything about it. Why do you think the authorities would do that?

German criminal law can explain that. When authorities open an investigation against someone, it starts outside of the public's view. The state prosecutor's office has said that Cornelius Gurlitt has been under investigation for tax evasion for about a year and a half. The objects were seized. But this was a temporary measure for safekeeping, which means that after the investigation, they will be returned to their owners - unless they were used to perpetrate a crime, which I cannot imagine was the case here.

Several experts have said they assume Gurlitt is the legal owner of most of the artworks, and that many of the pieces were not stolen by Nazis. Do agree with this view?

As a lawyer who has dealt with the issue of looted art, I would endorse that opinion. This applies mostly to the "degenerate" art, which means works of art that the Nazis removed from museums in 1937 and handed over to some dealers - including Hildebrand Gurlitt - for evaluation. Hildebrand Gurlitt apparently acquired significant parts of these inventories. These were purchases he was legally permitted to make. The consequence is that Gurlitt's heirs received these objects.

How likely is it that works found in Munich will be returned to people who claim the art was taken from them, if their claims prove to be true?

As far as this goes, at the moment we are only able to make rough predictions. We have certain objects that we believe are part of Gurlitt's collection. It's interesting to note that prosecutors seized not only the works of art, but also Gurlitt's business papers and inventory lists. These papers allow you to reenact the story of the paintings, and that is certainly very important - and this information belongs in the public sphere.

Markus Stötzel is a lawyer who specializes in issues of restitution. He has often represented people who called for the return of works of art taken from their families by the Nazis. He has represented Alfred Flechtheim's descendants since 2008.

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