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Looted paintings owned by a Nazi-era art dealer have gone on display

The works are just a small fraction of the pieces discovered in 2012 in possession of his son Cornelius Gurlitt.

Hildebrand Gurlitt A handout picture made available on 21 November 2013 shows a portrait of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt take by Fritz Alter sen. ca. 1925 (bromoil print) from the Kunstsammlungen Zwickau. Source: DPA/PA Images

PORTIONS OF THE spectacular art collection hoarded by the son of a Nazi-era dealer are being shown for the first time since World War II – in parallel exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany.

Gurlitt: Status Report, which displays around 450 works by masters including Monet, Cezanne, Renoir and Picasso, aims to shed a light on the systematic looting of Jewish collections under Adolf Hitler. It opened on Thursday.

The works in the two exhibitions, which run in Bern and the German city of Bonn until March, are just a small fraction of the more than 1,500 pieces discovered in 2012 in the possession of a man named Cornelius Gurlitt.

His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, worked as an art dealer for the Nazis, starting in 1938.

Prussia Foundation after discovery of art stolen by Nazis man walks past a painting The Watzmann (1824/25) by Caspar David Friedrich in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany, 24 April 2014. The Gurlitt case has rekindled the debate around artwork stolen by the Nazis. German museums are coming under more scrutiny. Source: DPA/PA Images

The discovery of the stash made headlines around the world and revived an emotional debate about how thoroughly postwar Germany had dealt with art plundered by the Nazi regime.

“At last it is out of hiding,” the German weekly Die Zeit said about the collection, noting that “for the first time it will be possible to view what many have spoken and written about in the past few years, without being able to see it so far”.

The show, split between the two museums, is the result of years of disputed research into Gurlitt’s collection, which was discovered in the course of a tax probe.

Inspectors found the works in Gurlitt’s Salzburg home and his cluttered Munich apartment, many in poor condition, unframed and mouldy.

“With these two exhibitions, we wish to pay homage to the people who became victims of the National Socialist art theft, as well as the artists who were defamed and persecuted by the regime as ‘degenerate’,” Rein Wolfs and Nina Zimmer, directors of the Kunsthalle Bonn and the Kunstmuseum Bern, respectively, said in a statement.

Legal tangles

Gurlitt, who died in 2014 at the age of 81, was described in the press as a recluse who lived off of the sale of his collection, valued in the millions of euros.

The exhibition in Bern will focus on modern works which were classified by the Nazis as ‘Degenerate Art’ in 1937 and confiscated for sale abroad.

In Bonn, the show will present art that was looted from victims of the Nazi regime and works whose provenance has not yet been established.

The exhibits themselves have prompted difficult legal tangles.

Dirty dealings: Finding a home for Nazi Germany's looted masterpi Henri Matisse's Woman Sitting in an Armchair is one of the most famous paintings discovered in a trove of art kept hidden in Germany and Austria from the Nazi era until 2012 by Cornelius Gurlitt and his father, a Nazi-era art dealer. Source: DPA/PA Images

When Gurlitt died he left more than 1,500 artworks to the Bern museum. It accepted the collection, though it left about 500 works in Germany so that a government task force could research their often murky origins.

But determining their provenance has been slow, and it is not yet clear how many of these works were stolen.

Researchers have definitively identified just six works of art as looted from Jewish owners.

Cezanne behind a cupboard

Four, including Max Liebermann’s Riders on the Beach and Henri Matisse’s Seated Woman, have now been returned to their heirs.

And last week, the German Lost Art Foundation said it had identified a painting by Thomas Couture as belonging to French Jewish politician and resistance leader Georges Mandel.

Other families have also tried to lay claims to works.

Relatives of Paul Cezanne have asked for the return of La Montagne Sainte Victoire, a painting found in Gurlitt’s Salzburg house behind a cupboard.

“It is not yet clear how the work came into Hildebrand Gurlitt’s possession,” Marcel Bruelhart, vice president of the Kunstmuseum Bern foundation, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

One of Gurlitt’s cousins also contested the donation of works to the Bern Museum, claiming that Gurlitt had not been of sound mind when he wrote his will.

Her appeal was thrown out by a German court last December, clearing the way for the current exhibitions.

- © AFP, 2017

Read: The story of an Irish maths genius who broke Nazi codes is finally being told>

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