German team probing stolen Nazi art defends slow progress
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German team probing stolen Nazi art defends slow progress

Only one percent of paintings hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt ‘without doubt’ were stolen from Jewish families, task force says

File: (L-R) Swiss politician Bernhard Pulver, Christoph Schaeublin, president of the Foundation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann attend a press conference on the late German Cornelius Gurlitt 's looted Nazi-era art collection on November 24, 2014 in Berlin. (photo credit: AFP/RONNY HARTMANN)
File: (L-R) Swiss politician Bernhard Pulver, Christoph Schaeublin, president of the Foundation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann attend a press conference on the late German Cornelius Gurlitt 's looted Nazi-era art collection on November 24, 2014 in Berlin. (photo credit: AFP/RONNY HARTMANN)

A German task force investigating the provenance of a spectacular Nazi-era art hoard said Thursday that only five out of 500 works had been proved to be looted thus far, and defended its slow progress.

The government-appointed panel presented a report on the pieces of suspect origin among the more than 1,200 artworks in the secret collection discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt’s cluttered Munich apartment four years ago.

But the 14-member task force, which wrapped up its work in late December, said that only one percent could be shown without doubt to have been stolen from Jewish families under the Third Reich or sold under duress.

Task force chairwoman Ingeborg Bergreen-Merkel told reporters that a new project team called Gurlitt Provenance Research would continue digging through records to find rightful owners.

“It remains a duty that we owe to the victims of crimes during the Nazi period,” she said, as she handed over a hard drive with her report to German culture minister Monika Gruetters.

Gruetters hit back at criticism that Germany had been far too slow and opaque in coming to terms with this chapter of its Nazi past, saying the task force had an obligation to be thorough and respect existing laws.

She said the chaotic conditions under which the works had been found and strict rules governing personal data had posed further hurdles.
“I can understand the impatience of the heirs and their families,” she said, speaking of a “dilemma” between “scientific diligence” and the “interests of the victims.”

The 14-member international task force was established in 2013 to sort through the spectacular trove hidden for decades by Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a powerful art dealer during the Third Reich.

A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the more than 1,500 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. (Lostart.de/Augsburg prosecutors/AFP/File)
A combination of photos released by prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany on November 12, 2013 show five of the more than 1,500 paintings believed looted by the Nazis, seized from a Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. (Lostart.de/Augsburg prosecutors/AFP/File)

It included experts from France, Israel, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the United States and Germany, and victims’ groups such as the Jewish Claims Conference.

Gurlitt, described in media reports as an eccentric recluse, hoarded hundreds of paintings, drawings and sketches in his Munich home for decades and another 239 works at a house he owned in Salzburg, Austria.

Although German authorities discovered the collection during a tax probe in 2012, they kept it under wraps for more than a year until it came to light in a magazine article.

Families stripped of their assets by the Nazis, many of whom would later be gassed in the death camps, have complained that restitution has been woefully slow in coming.

Last year, the long-lost Matisse painting “Seated Woman” was returned to the family of the late art dealer Paul Rosenberg.

Another wor’s “Two Riders on a Beach” was given back to heirs of David Friedmann, from whom the Nazis stole the work in 1938, the day after the Kristallnacht pogrom.

It went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London in June for $2.9 million.

The three additional works proved to be looted were by German artists Carl Spitzweg and Adolph Menzel, and Impressionist master Camille Pissarro.

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