Germany, under pressure, speeds investigation of Nazi-looted art
File photo of a print of the painting 'Lion-Tamer' by German artist Max Beckmann is displayed in a book at Lempertz auction house in Cologne
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany, under pressure to hasten inquiries into Nazi-looted art works stashed in a recluse's flat, has sent legal experts to help local authorities in Munich resolve myriad ownership issues, Focus magazine reported on Sunday.
The federal government's intervention follows criticism that authorities stayed silent too long about 1,406 art works by European masters they stumbled upon last year.
Focus, based in Munich, said the government sent "several staffers" to the Bavaria justice ministry on Friday.
"The federal government is working hard to ensure that information about the confiscated works of art is made available as there are now indications that Nazi persecution could be involved," Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said the same day.
Focus, which broke the Nazi art story a week ago, also said on Sunday customs experts believe some of the art cannot be legally returned to its original owners because it came from state museums - and restitution claims would likely fail.
File combination photo of two paintings of German artist Otto Dix beamed to a wall at an Augsburg courtroom
Customs officials seized the paintings, sketches and sculptures from Cornelius Gurlitt in February 2012. They were hoarded by his father Hildebrand, a war-era art dealer put in charge of selling "degenerate" art by Adolf Hitler.
"A large portion of Hildebrand Gurlitt's treasure confiscated from his son can probably not be returned to the rightful owners," Focus magazine said, quoting from an internal customs office analysis made for the Finance Ministry that refers to 315 pieces of the "degenerate" art work found.
The legal status of the art remains murky and disputed nearly 70 years after World War Two. Some legal experts say Gurlitt may even get to keep it but others say Germany could nullify his ownership under the 1998 Washington Declaration, a set of principles for dealing with looted art.
The secrecy and the delay in publishing an inventory of the works, estimated to be worth up to 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion), has been criticized by those who say that publicizing such finds is vital to finding their rightful owners.