German prosecutors sat on the information that they had confiscated some 1,200 pieces of art stolen by Nazis before World War II hidden in a Munich apartment in 2012, until the find was made public by a piece published in a German newsmagazine, Spiegel, in 2013. In the wake of the outcry following the reveal, a task force spent two years and nearly $2 million on a project to return the stolen works to their rightful owners. Yet, so far, the provenance of only five artworks has been determined, Melissa Eddie writes for the New York Times.
The pilfered art was collected by Hildebrand Gurlitt, the so-called "art dealer to the Führer," who was tasked by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's head of propaganda, to sell art that the Nazis confiscated. Instead, it seems Gurlitt collected the art and kept about a billion dollars worth of drawings and paintings throughout the war, reports Philip Oltermann for the Guardian. The collection, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee, was hidden away in the flat of Grulitt's son, Cornelius Gurlitt. Officials were first alerted to the art after Cornelius was put under investigation for tax evasion.
Just a week after Spiegel revealed the collection's existence, some of the works were posted to a website, LostArt.de, to try and help people reconnect with their lost art. Since then, the specially appointed task force has determined that 276 pieces were created by members of the Gurlitt family or made after 1945, Eddy reports. They verified that 231 belonged to German museums before the Nazis seized them.
Among the works whose histories have been traced, four have been restored to the families of their original owners. They include an oil painting by Max Liebermann, “Two Riders on a Beach,” that sold for $2.9 million at auction, and a portrait by Matisse, “Femme Assise,” or “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in an Armchair,” that was given to the descendants of Paul Rosenberg. Other restored works include a Pissarro and a drawing by Carl Spitzweg.
The fifth work, a drawing by Adolph von Menzel, was determined to have been looted, but has not yet been returned to its rightful owners.
German culture minister, Monika Grütters, praised the task force's successes. “One lesson we have learned will stay with us, namely that speed and thoroughness are not both possible in provenance research,” she told the New York Times.
The lack of transparency among the task force, however, in addition to the limited discoveries, has drawn criticism from Jewish groups. So far, the results have been "meager and not satisfactory," Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, says in a statement, Reuters reports (via the Jerusalem Post). As many of the Nazi victims are in their 90s, time is especially critical when it comes to finding the owners of these works.
Though just these five works have been traced so far, the group has determined that 499 works have "a questionable history," the Reuters report adds. The German Lost Art Foundation, who oversaw the task force, announced that a new phase of the project will begin this month that will continue to seek the original homes for those works still in the government's custody.
Editors Note, January 19, 2016: This post's title has been amended to clarify that the five works of art were pieces stolen by Nazis.