Munich Art Trove Jewish Groups Criticize Plans to Return Paintings

The elderly man in Munich whose more than 1,000 artworks were seized on suspicion of being stolen by Nazis is likely to get around 300 of the pictures back. Jewish groups accuse authorities of seeking to hastily end the scandal with the move.

Cornelius Gurlitt, the eccentric son of a Nazi-era art dealer  whose trove of precious works of art  was seized last year and long kept secret by authorities, is likely to get hundreds of the artworks back. The Augsburg public prosecutor's office told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that about 310 of the paintings were undoubtedly Gurlitt's legitimate property and could be returned to him by next week.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany, the country's largest Jewish  umbrella organization, criticized the move and called for "sensibility and responsibility" in matters related to possibly stolen art .

"After the whole thing was treated almost conspiratorially for more than 18 months, the quick decision of a wholesale return (of the art) is certainly also the wrong way," Dieter Graumann, the Council's president, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung's Thursday edition. The case was about more than just a "legal right to restitution," he said; it also had a "moral and historical dimension," and politicians have the responsibility to "help provide the dignity of today to the victims of the past."

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, accused state authorities of wanting to rid themselves of the issue as fast as possible, and called for a change in the statute of limitations law relating to art stolen by the Nazis.

Authorities seized more than 1,000 works of art from Gurlitt's apartment in early 2012, suspecting they had been confiscated or banned by the Nazis. Gurlitt, 80, said in an interview with SPIEGEL  that he "loved" the artworks and kept them secret in his apartment to protect them.

The federal government and the state government of Bavaria have created an expert commission  to investigate the provenance of artworks and determine which, if any, were stolen -- initial estimates place the number of suspicious works at around 590. The commission is also working to place more of the paintings up on the online database, www.lostart.de.

Around 100 lawyers from around the world have filed claims to some of the works, and the case is likely to be bogged down by legal problems for some time to come.

acb -- with wires
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