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Caution urged in Nazi art case

November 21, 2013

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has argued against returning some artworks seized from Cornelius Gurlitt's apartment. After 18 months of "conspiratorial" silence on the find, they said it was now unwise to rush.

Wilhelm Lachnit's 'Mann und Frau am Fenster', Aquarell, 1923. This was one of the first 25 pieces to be published on lostart.de Photo: Staatsanwaltschaft Augsburg/dpa
Image: Staatsanwaltschaft Augsburg/dpa

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, told Thursday's edition of the 'Süddeutsche Zeitung' newspaper that prosecutors should rethink plans to return some of the art to Cornelius Gurlitt.

Prosecutors seized around 1,400 artworks, many thought lost or stolen during the Nazi era, from Gurlitt's apartment early in 2012. The massive art find only came to light through media reports this month. The collection boasts pieces from artists including Picasso, Matisse, Delacroix and Chagall.

A task force has been established to determine the origins of the various pieces.

"There will probably be around 310 paintings that are doubtless the property of the accused," Aubgsburg public prosecutor Richard Nemetz told the Süddeutsche when asked how many pieces might be returned to Gurlitt.

Jewish representative Graumann said officials were running the risk of compounding earlier errors.

"After the whole affair was handled almost conspiratorially for a good 18 months, now this swift decision in favor of a partial return is also the wrong path," Graumann said.

Officials seeking talks with Gurlitt

Gurlitt's father Hildebrand was a prominent art dealer for the Nazis, charged with selling artwork stolen, seized or otherwise acquired during their 12 years in power. Graumann said that such cases transcended "the legal right to restitution" and took on "moral and historical dimensions."

Investigations continue to identify the heritage of many pieces in Gurlitt's vast collection; officials said earlier in the week that around 590 artworks were under particular scrutiny. The German government appointed a special task force to determine which pieces were stolen or looted during Adolf Hitler's time in power.

"Transparency and progress are now the most urgent things," the task force's leader, Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel told the German dpa news agency. "What's more we are seeking talks with Mr. Gurlitt so that we can work out constructive solutions together." Beggreen-Merkel also said it was ultimately in Gurlitt's interest to discover which of the paintings were illegally acquired.

Gurlitt said in an interview with this week's edition of news magazine Spiegel that he did not intend to give up the art voluntarily, saying he had provided prosecutors with proof of ownership.

Several of the lost artworks considered likely to have been stolen have already been placed on the Internet portal lostart.de, further pieces were due for online publication on Thursday.

msh/ph (AFP, dpa)