Germany publishes details of 25 lost art works online

Bavarian authorities promise taskforce to expedite provenance research of 1,400 works

A combination photograph of two formerly unknown paintings by German artist Otto Dix beamed on to a wall on November 5th in an Augsburg courtroom

A combination photograph of two formerly unknown paintings by German artist Otto Dix beamed on to a wall on November 5th in an Augsburg courtroom

 

Germany has responded to international criticism of how it has handed the discovery of a huge haul of lost art in Munich by publishing details of 25 works yesterday on a state-run website.

Some 19 months ago, Bavarian police seized over 1,400 works in the squalid apartment owned by Cornelius Gurlitt, the 79-year-old son of a Nazi-era art dealer. Yesterday Mr Gurlitt described the investigation into his art collection as a “childish prank”.

From February 2012 until last week, a Berlin art expert has investigated in secret the provenance of the works. Many are modernist works dubbed “degenerate” by the Nazis and seized from their owners or bought at knock-down prices in the 1930s and 1940s by art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. After the war, he claimed most of his collection was destroyed along with his home in the 1945 bombing of Dresden.

Hail of criticism
When news of the find leaked last week, police in Augsburg refused to make available a list of the works recovered, prompting a hail of criticism from international art experts and families who lost artworks during the Nazi era.

Responding to the ongoing protest, Bavarian state investigators have now assumed control of the investigation. Instead of a single provenance researcher, they promised a six-person taskforce to establish the rightful owners of the works. Other works of unclear origin will soon follow the initial 25 works publicised yesterday.

“This is about Germany’s historical responsibility,” said Winfried Bausback, Bavarian justice minister, promising a “quick and clean examination of the pictures’ origin” and to release works to their rightful owners. “I want this to happen as quickly as possible.”

Despite its promises, however, the first indications yesterday suggested the Bavarian authorities continue to underestimate the international interest in the massive art find.

The website with images of the recovered works, lostart.de, crashed continually yesterday while the phone rang out at the state authority in Magdeburg that operates the website and co-ordinates restitution requests.

The images released yesterday were all artworks of questionable provenance, including oils, watercolours and sketches. Artists represented include German masters Otto Dix and Max Liebermann as well as Chagall, Matisse and Canaletto.

After a preliminary investigation, Bavarian authorities estimate about one-third of the 1,406 works discovered were legitimately owned by the Gurlitt family. Of the remaining 970 works some 380 were classified by the Nazis as “degenerate” and, after display in Germany, most likely entrusted to Gurlitt to sell internationally.

The remaining 590 works are classified as “Nazi-disappropriated”. Investigators warned yesterday that a long and complex legal road lay ahead to decide what would happen to the 970 works with unclear ownership.

Statute of limitation
Even if it can be proven that a work was sold under duress by its owner in the Nazi era, the statute of limitations to reverse any private sales expired after 30 years.

It’s possible many of the suspect works could eventually be returned to Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son, unless German authorities use the dealer’s dishonest claims to have lost the works in 1945.

Cornelius Gurlitt left his apartment in Munich’s Schwabing district. He told neighbours he was going to the doctor, though had a suitcase and reportedly took a taxi to the airport.

“This is all a childish prank,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily as he left. “I can’t say anything. I know nothing. I’ve given all the files to the state prosecutor.”

German authorities say they are still examining what, if any, charges to bring against Mr Gurlitt, with tax fraud the most likely option.