An elderly German recluse is prepared to return precious paintings stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families including a priceless Matisse, his spokesman say.
Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, had around 1400 long-lost works by European masters stashed in his Munich apartment and more than 200 paintings, sketches and sculptures in a home in Salzburg, Austria.
His spokesman said that Gurlitt – the son of a Nazi-era art dealer – had ordered his legal team to hand back works believed to have been stolen or extorted from Jewish families as part of the systematic plunder of art collections by the Nazis during World War II.
“Should there be the well-founded suspicion that works are looted art then please give them back to their Jewish owners,” Gurlitt told his lawyer, according to his spokesman Stephan Holzinger.
Henri Matisse’s Sitting Woman will be the first work returned, to the heirs of prominent Paris art collector Paul Rosenberg, Holzinger said.
The painting shows a stout, dark-haired woman in a floral dress sitting in a chair in a room with vibrant wall coverings.
The Nazis stole the work from Rosenberg and it was kept for a time in the vast looted art trove of Hermann Goering, the Gestapo secret police founder and air force chief.
“We are very confident about reaching a deal on the return in the coming days,” Holzinger said.
Gurlitt’s father Hildebrand acquired the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, when he worked as an art dealer tasked by the Nazis with selling stolen works and avant-garde art the Hitler regime deemed “degenerate”.
A task force appointed to research the origins of the Gurlitt works says it suspects that 458 were stolen or extorted from Jewish owners under Hitler.
It says another 380 pieces are believed to have been confiscated as “degenerate” art, mainly from public collections and museums.
Germany came under fire for initially keeping the Gurlitt find under wraps, and faces renewed pressure over its post-World War II restitution efforts.
MPs are currently debating a law to ditch a 30-year statute of limitations that has provided cover for people in possession of contested artwork.