Germany could challenge recluse's ownership of Nazi-looted art

Wed Nov 6, 2013 1:14pm EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German recluse who hoarded his late father's trove of Nazi-looted art may be its legal owner but the Berlin government has the authority - and moral obligation, some argue - to return the art works to their original Jewish owners or their heirs.

The status of the haul is ambiguous nearly 70 years after World War Two, subject to conflicting claims and obscured by the secretive world of art dealing. The man in whose Munich flat it was found, Cornelius Gurlitt, may even get to keep it.

Last year customs investigators seized 1,400 art works by European masters dating from the 16th century to the avant garde which had been hoarded by his father, one of the men Adolf Hitler put in charge of selling so-called "degenerate" art.

Hailed as one of the most significant discoveries of art looted by the Nazis, it has fuelled feverish speculation about its provenance and likely claims from the heirs of Jewish collectors robbed, dispossessed or murdered by the Nazis.

"The legal situation as far as I can tell is that Gurlitt is the rightful owner of a large share of the work in question - even if that is questionable from a moral and ethical point of view," said Uwe Hartmann, head of the government agency charged with researching the provenance of art in public collections.

But Germany, already under fire for keeping the hoard secret for nearly a year, could face further criticism if it allows Gurlitt to keep the paintings, sketches and sculptures.

Legal experts and those familiar with the question of looted art said Germany could nullify his ownership by citing the principle of "adverse possession" or under the 1998 Washington Declaration, a set of principles for dealing with looted art.

Michael Naumann, who as German culture minister in 1998 signed the Washington Declaration, said it would be absurd to let Gurlitt keep art work which could have been looted or extorted from Jews as they fled the Holocaust.   Continued...

The house of art collector Cornelius Gurlitt is pictured in Salzburg November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler