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(photo credit: (US National Archives/Reuters))
Drawing the ire of Jewish organizations, the German prosecutor directing the investigation into 1,400 pieces of Nazi-looted artwork said this week he does not plan to publish online a list of masterpieces for fear of being flooded with ownership claims.
Reinhard Nemetz, who leads the prosecutor’s office in Augsburg, also defended the almost two-year delay in disclosing any details about the find.
He referred to security concerns and the integrity of a tax investigation against Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a famous Nazi art dealer. Nemetz added during a press conference that his office did not know where Gurlitt was, and declined to comment when asked if Gurlitt was alive.
“The idea that they would be reluctant to receive claims is of great concern,” Anne Webber, co-chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, told The Jerusalem Post
“They seem to be not appreciating the seriousness of the history of these works of art. It’s absolutely dismaying,” she said.
Webber’s view was echoed by Chris Marinello, the director of Art Recovery International who is representing a family that filed one of the first formal claims to one of the paintings, a Matisse. At least three families have filed claims so far.
“For God’s sake, they deserve to be inundated with claims. I can give you six million reasons why they should release a list immediately,” Marinello told the Post
The trove – 1,285 unframed and 121 framed works – is thought to be among the biggest lost-art discoveries in history. It came in February 2012, as reported on Sunday by the German newsmagazine Focus.
Since then, the German government has struggled to explain key aspects of the case, including the decisions to keep the discovery secret and to employ a single art historian to examine the massive amount of artwork.
When asked about the discovery, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman called for the publication of lists of art deemed to have been looted by the Nazis. The US State Department has urged the German government to be transparent about the works.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said in a statement that the art “must be returned to heirs as expeditiously as possible” and cited the German government’s obligations following the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998.
One principle from that conference stated: “Every effort should be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.”
But restitution is far from certain. A German government official who specializes in art provenance told Reuters 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.”
Webber said the return of the artwork to Gurlitt would be “unconscionable.”
In another twist this week, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe released US military documents showing that the art collection of Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was seized by American soldiers in 1945.
Gurlitt, who was tasked by Joseph Goebbels with selling “degenerate” art for the Nazis, told American soldiers that he was an “anti-Nazi” and denounced “always increasing Nazi terror.”
The collection was subsequently returned to Gurlitt in 1951. Several paintings from that collection were apparently found in the collection announced this week, Webber said.