An amazing collection of stolen German art may go back to the man who has been hiding it for decades

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Prosecutors in Germany have been trying do decide what to do with a whole trove of artworks for a couple of years now. Back in 2012, police discovered some 1400 paintings and other artworks stashed in an apartment in Munich. The place belonged to a reclusive old man named Cornelius Gurlitt and his collection is thought to include pieces looted by the Nazis during World War II. But today a surprising twist. Prosecutors announced they're giving most of the art back to Gurlitt. At the same time, they're giving anybody with a credible claim on a piece one year to prove it. Wall Street Journal reporter Mary Lane is covering the story and it won't shock you to hear that she says Gurlitt's case is complicated.

Mary Lane: Cornelius Gurlitt is the eighty-one year old son of Hildebrand Gurlitt who was one of Hitler's four major art dealers, was quite a successful art dealer for him, so much so that Hitler actually tapped him to be the museum director for his Führermuseum which was going to have lots of looted art in it that was going to be in Linz, Austria, but of course he lost the war and that never happened. After the war what happened was Hildebrand Gurlitt gave some of these artworks to the Monument Men to investigate, but he hid a lot of it actually. He gave some to a friend in Switzerland, he put some in a windmill. He didn't really disclose the whereabouts of all of the work and his son inherited it when he passed away. And his son has been living in a Munich apartment and stored a bunch of the artwork there. He's never really had any friends, he's never been married or dated anyone, as he's admitted himself. So he's really just has lived under the radar in Germany until this collection was discovered by tax authorities.

Schachter: And give us an idea of some of the more high-profile artworks.

Lane: Well, essentially the collection is roughly 1300 to 1400 works and the vast majority of that is actually not incredibly high-profile. They are works on paper, sketches by some major artists, Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso, but the most high-profile work by far is a Matisse titled "Woman with a Fan" that belongs to the family of Paul Rosenberg who was a major Jewish art dealer. The work is valued at about twenty million dollars, definitely the most valuable in the collection and it's one that's being fought over.

Schachter: This painting we're talking about from impressionist Matisse is being given back to Gurlitt even though everyone knows it was stolen during the Nazi time.

Lane: Yes, that's correct.

Schachter: Why is that?

Lane: Well, part of it is because the work was taken, in the first place, two years ago in early 2012 by the German authorities as part of a tax probe and once Gurlitt finally did get a lawyer, they pushed and said, "Look, you guys have been doing the tax probe for two years. You haven't actually come up with any kind of violations, so you need to either charge him with something or give it back." But also in Germany the statute of limitation for art that individuals have stolen, even if that was art that was looted during the war from Jews or homosexuals or political dissidents, is the same as art that's stolen today and that's thirty years. So the statute of limitations expired in the 1970s, which is not the case in a lot of European countries in Europe and it's remarkable that in Germany there is a statute of limitations for art for art that the Nazis stole. So that's definitely something that has been coming up as a huge debate here, is why is it why is it that a country that has started the war kind of giving a free pass to people who stole art during it?

Schachter: What should we watch for next as the story evolves?

Lane: The main thing to watch for is what goes on with the Rosenberg family, who are claiming the Matisse, and Gurlitt's lawyers because they were extremely close to a deal last week. At the last minute the task force appointed with looking into these works jumped jumped in and said there was a third-party claim. Now, from what I've heard, that claim is not a fully-legitimate one, so the issue then is there is no legal requirement for Gurlitt's team to give back the Matisse, so I think what we're going to be looking for it whether they're going to be true to these pledges they've made and give that piece back or whether there's going to be more wrangling and attempts at getting some kind of monetary compensation for it.

Schachter: Wall Street Journal's European Arts reporter Mary Lane. Many thanks.

Lane: Thank you.