Bavaria Investigates Law Change to Reclaim Nazi-Seized Artworks

Winfried Bausback, Bavaria’s justice minister, is considering changing the German state’s law to make it easier for the federal government to claim a collection of art allegedly seized by the Nazis and hoarded for decades in a Munich apartment block.

He asked the Justice Department to evaluate whether a 30-year statute of limitations can be revoked if an artwork’s owner acquired or inherited the piece in bad faith, Bausback told a committee of lawmakers in the state parliament in Munich today. Bausback also wants the law change to be retroactive.

Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-year-old from whom 1,406 artworks were seized by German authorities in March 2012 in a tax investigation, doesn’t want to relinquish any of the pieces and is demanding their return, Spiegel magazine reported Nov. 17. Germany’s government has said as many as 590 of the works may have been looted from Jewish collectors by the Nazis.

“The Schwabing art find brought to light an issue that was not tackled and certainly not resolved after the war,” Bausback said, referring to the borough of Munich in which the apartment is located. “The other possibility is to reach an agreement with Mr Gurlitt. I hope that he is open to discussions.”

The cache included works by Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Max Beckmann.

The state prosecutor handling the case has prioritized identifying which paintings unequivocally belong to Gurlitt so these can be returned to him and previous owners of the remaining pieces can seek restitution.

The investigation into the artworks’ provenance has already taken too long, Bausback said. German authorities should have dedicated more manpower to the investigation from the outset, he said, while defending a decision not to make the findings of the investigation public sooner.

“This wasn’t simply a discovery of art such as the tomb of Tutankhamun, it was part of a criminal investigation,” Bausback said. “It was therefore not made public with good reason.”

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