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Jewish leaders welcome German action on Nazi-looted art found in Munich apartment
A reproduction of a painting by German painter Franz Marc titled 'Landscape with horses' is seen during a press conference in Augsburg, southern Germany, on November 5, 2013, on the discovery of nearly 1,500 paintings including works by Picasso and Matisse looted by the Nazis. The prosecutors spoke to the press a day after German weekly Focus revealed police came upon the paintings during a February 2012 search in an apartment belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt, the octogenarian son of art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE.

By: Deborah Cole

BERLIN (AFP).- Jewish leaders Tuesday welcomed Germany's decision to launch a task force on Nazi-looted art and to begin to lift the veil on a vast hoard of works uncovered in a Munich flat.

The American Jewish Committee said the moves, including posting images online of 25 long-lost works by the likes of Matisse, Delacroix and Rodin believed to have been stolen by the Nazis, marked key first steps toward finding their rightful owners.

"It sends an important message that the federal government, after the outrage about the silence surrounding the stolen Nazi art, got involved," said Deidre Berger, director of its Berlin office.

"Now the necessary resources must be made available so the experts can start their work."

After a week of uproar over the revelation that German customs police had more than a year and a half ago seized about 1,400 treasured works stashed for decades in a private home, the government took a few steps toward transparency.

Public prosecutors in the southern city of Augsburg had been in charge of the investigation against Cornelius Gurlitt, the elderly son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a powerful Nazi-era art dealer and collector who acquired the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s.

They had commissioned a sole art historian to catalogue the works, and insisted on discretion for their ongoing probe into charges of tax evasion and misappropriation of assets.

But when the case was blown open in a magazine report earlier this month, Jewish families who believe the haul may include paintings stolen or extorted from them under the Third Reich and museums whose holdings were raided demanded to see a full inventory in order to make possible claims.

Amid angry accusations of foot-dragging and obfuscation, the German government said Monday it and the state of Bavaria where Munich and Augsburg are located had assumed responsibility for the provenance research and commissioned a task force of at least six experts to speed up the process.

It posted images on its official online database a first batch of 25 paintings "for which there is strong suspicion that they were seized as part of Nazi persecution".

The website, which crashed repeatedly Tuesday apparently due to massive demand, is to be updated "regularly".

Time for transparency

The works shown included an undated dream-like allegorical scene by Chagall, a Delacroix sketch, the iconic 1901 work "Two Riders on the Beach" by Max Liebermann, a sumptuous portrait of a seated woman by Henri Matisse from the mid-1920s, and an undated nude drawing by Auguste Rodin.

The German government said investigators now believe that of the hundreds of works found professionally stored in Gurlitt's trash-strewn flat, around 590 may have been stolen from Jewish owners or bought from them under duress.

About 380 works are believed to have been seized from museums amid a crackdown under Adolf Hitler on avant-garde, or so-called "degenerate", art.

Authorities had already shown slides of priceless gems in the collection including unknown Chagall and Otto Dix canvases to slack-jawed reporters at a news conference on November 5.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Germany's hard-won international reputation for facing up to its Nazi past was on the line with the extraordinary discovery of the paintings.

"We have to make sure that we don't fritter away the trust built up over long decades. It's the time for transparency now," he said on a visit to India, according to press reports.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Monday that Berlin "can well understand why representatives of Jewish groups in particular are asking questions -- they represent elderly people who were grievously wronged, or their families".

However the legal landscape is murky and Cornelius Gurlitt may still be able to demand the state return much of his collection.

German media and Jewish organisations called on Berlin Tuesday to override any claim by Gurlitt by invoking the Washington Conference Principles of 1998 covering art taken from Jews under the Nazis, which commits public institutions and large museums to do their utmost to return work to their rightful owners or their heirs.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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