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Swiss Museum to Accept Nazi-era Art Trove

  • Henry Ridgwell

A museum in Switzerland has decided to accept hundreds of artworks from the son of a Nazi-era art dealer. German authorities seized a priceless collection of 1,280 artworks in 2012, hidden in an apartment in the city of Munich. Many of the works were looted from Jewish families across Europe by the Nazis.

The collection of paintings was discovered by tax inspectors who were searching the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Adolf Hitler’s art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt in 2012.

Cornelius Gurlitt died in May this year - and named the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland as his ‘sole heir’. President of the museum’s Board of Trustees Christoph Schaeublin announced Monday it would accept some of the artworks.

Schaeublin said the decision was far from easy for the board of trustees. He added there were certainly no feelings of triumph, which would be absolutely inappropriate in light of the art collection's history.

Among the works are paintings by Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Bern Art Museum said it would not accept looted artworks, and pledged to help return stolen paintings to their rightful owners.

That will not be an easy task, says Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International in London, which specializes in stolen and disputed artworks.

“It is extremely difficult to identify and prove a claim to Nazi-looted artwork. Many of these people were fleeing for their lives and the last thing they were about to do is grab a box of receipts," said Marinello.

An agreement known as the "Washington Principles" aims to make it easier for claimants to prove ownership of stolen art. German authorities have struggled to deal with the fallout of the extraordinary find in 2012, says Marinello.

“There is a lot to be learned in this case and the way it was handled for the next time. And I do believe there will be a next time. We have not seen the last of hordes of Nazi-looted works of art," he said.

The recovery of some of the art looted by the Nazis was dramatized in the 2013 movie The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney.

Earlier this year, a photo album depicting such stolen masterpieces was donated to the United States’ National Archives.

Eighty-eight-year-old Harry Ettlinger was one of the original Monuments Men - six soldiers from a US Army unit tasked with recovering thousands of looted artworks at the end of World War 2, some of them hidden inside salt mines. He recalled his first mission.

“The first one happened to contain the stained glass windows from the cathedral of Strasbourg, and [General Dwight] Eisenhower made a big deal about it, rightfully so, and it was my job to go down into the mine and have miners help me get those boxes up and put on trucks to be returned," said Ettlinger.

Nearly 70 years after that mission, the hunt continues for more priceless art.

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