Bern Art Museum in Switzerland has agreed to accept hundreds of artworks bequeathed by German Nazi-era art hoarder Cornelius Gurlitt.
Many of the works are expected to remain in Germany until their rightful owners can be identified.
Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Adolf Hitler’s art dealer, amassed a priceless collection of works, including pieces by Picasso and Monet.
He died in May aged 81 with the Bern museum named his “sole heir”.
The Bavarian authorities seized some 1,280 artworks from his Munich flat as part of a tax evasion probe in February 2012.
The find, which was not made public until November last year, has triggered legal disputes surrounding works taken illegally by the Nazis.
The Bern museum’s president, Christoph Schaeublin, told a news conference in Berlin on November 24 that the museum would accept the bequest.
But “no work suspected of being looted” would enter the museum, he said.
The museum pledged to work with German authorities to ensure that “all looted art in the collection is returned” to its rightful owners.
“The foundation council’s decision was anything but easy and there certainly weren’t emotions of triumph,” said Christoph Schaeublin.
“These would be entirely inappropriate considering the historic burden weighing heavily on this art collection.”
Cornelius Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was ordered to deal in works that had been seized from Jews, or which the Nazis had considered “degenerate” and removed from German museums.
Among the collection were works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Emil Nolde and Max Liebermann.
A German task force is investigating the art amid claims from descendants of the original owners, including the family of art dealer Paul Rosenberg.
Cornelius Gurlitt initially refused to give up the paintings but then changed his position, agreeing to co-operate with the German authorities on establishing the paintings’ provenance, and then return them if they were shown to be stolen.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s cousin, 86-year-old Uta Werner, said on November 21 she was contesting his fitness of mind when he wrote the will naming the Bern museum as his sole heir.
Cornelius Gurlitt, known as the “Nazi art hoarder”, has died aged 81, with no definitive answer on what will happen to his secret collection, which included many Nazi-looted pieces.
More than 1,400 works were found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment, including pieces by Picasso and Matisse.
Many of the artworks were feared lost or destroyed before tax investigators uncovered his priceless collection in 2012.
More than 1,400 works were found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment, including pieces by Picasso and Matisse
Cornelius Gurlitt was the son of Adolf Hitler’s art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt.
Hildebrand Gurlitt was ordered to deal in works that had been seized from Jews, or which the Nazis considered “degenerate” and had removed from German museums.
Cornelius Gurlitt, whose death followed ill-health after heart surgery, told Der Spiegel magazine last November that he would never willingly give up the paintings.
“I haven’t loved anything more than my pictures in my life,” he said.
But he changed his position, agreeing to co-operate with the German authorities on establishing the paintings’ provenance, and returning them if they were shown to be stolen.
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters praised him for that, saying: “He will be rightly recognized and respected for taking this step.”
Cornelius Gurlitt died “in his apartment in Schwabing, in the presence of a doctor,” spokesman Stephan Holzinger said in a statement.
He did not live an extravagant life but would sell a painting only when he needed money.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection only came to light after a routine check found he was carrying wads of cash on a train from Switzerland, triggering a tax inquiry.
Investigators found more than 1,400 works in his flat in Munich in February 2012 – though they only revealed the discovery in late 2013 – and a further 60 in his house near Salzburg, Austria, earlier this year.
Among them were works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Emil Nolde and Max Liebermann.
The collection is estimated to be worth up to a billion euros ($1.35 billion).
Under German law, Cornelius Gurlitt was not compelled to return any paintings to their owners, as he was protected by a statute of limitations, which negates any claim for incidents that happened more than 30 years ago.
German authorities are to release 1,280 works of art confiscated two years ago from the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s father bought and sold art under the Nazis, including works looted from Jewish homes and works bought from Jewish owners under duress.
The collector’s lawyers accept a small portion of the works may be disputed.
But the great bulk of the trove, they say, is the collector’s for him to do with as he wishes.
Cornelius Gurlitt has been recovering from heart surgery and it is not known how he has reacted to the decision.
The immediate likelihood is that the paintings, some by Matisse, Picasso and other masters, will remain in a secure warehouse in Bavaria while legal disputes continue but the prosecutors’ decision implies he has a right to them.
A smaller number of works found at a property of Cornelius Gurlitt’s in Austria are not affected by the German decision.
German authorities are to release 1,280 works of art confiscated two years ago from the Munich apartment of collector Cornelius Gurlitt
Wednesday’s decision came shortly after the collector agreed to co-operate with the authorities to determine which of the paintings had been stolen by the Nazis and to enable their return.
Augsburg prosecutor Matthias Nickolai said in a statement that the works had been formally released after prosecutors re-evaluated the legal situation. Prosecutors, he said, had been “absolutely convinced” at the time of the seizure that it was legally correct.
Cornelius Gurlitt’s lawyer, Tido Park, said his “rehabilitation [would] be further strengthened” by Wednesday’s decision.
“So this is a good day for Cornelius Gurlitt,” he added.
The collector’s lawyers have agreed with the German authorities to return any works proven to be looted to their rightful owners but they believe that to be only 3% of the trove, and it will not be easy for claimants to get them back. There is a one-year deadline on proving ownership.
The lawyers say that just over 300 of the works are without doubt Cornelius Gurlitt’s because his father acquired them before the Nazis were in power.
Only six paintings are so far being claimed by other people. In the case of one of those paintings – a Matisse – the lawyers say there are now two competing claims.
Negotiations between Cornelius Gurlitt’s lawyers and claimants have been tough.
According to the Sud-Deutsche Zeitung, one claimant replied to an offer to sell back a looted painting in blunt, Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable.
There has been outrage among Jewish groups, who say that the authorities in Germany have made it very difficult for people to get their rightful property back.
The prosecutors were heavily criticized for not publicizing the fact that they had found the trove of pictures. It only emerged in the press a year later.
At the end of it all, it seems likely that Cornelius Gurlitt will keep all but a small part of the collection built up by his father.