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Angela Merkel's spokesman says Germany to include Jewish group in hunt for Nazi-looted art
A reproduction of a painting that could be attributed to German Max Liebermann 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.

BERLIN (AFP).- Germany moved Wednesday to answer further criticism of its handling of a vast trove of Nazi-looted art by pledging to include Jewish advocates in a search for rightful owners and fix a website cataloguing the works.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said the German government was in talks with the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) to link up their art provenance experts with a task force appointed Monday to comb through the more than 1,400 works discovered in a Munich flat.

He also announced improvements to an official government website which this week posted details on an initial lot of 25 works in the stash by the likes of Matisse, Delacroix and Rodin after it crashed repeatedly.

"We have brought great momentum to this process by forming the task force," Seibert insisted when asked by reporters about complaints Germany had been too slow and secretive in its handling of the spectacular case.

"The first works have been presented on the platform, which will of course be expanded with further works and a commission is working flat out to accommodate what has of course been an enormous rise in user demand."

Seibert added that beyond the "at least six" art historians appointed to the new task force, Germany would turn to experts abroad to make the hunt for the works' true owners more efficient and fair.

"We are for example in very close consultations with the Jewish Claims Conference. They also have expertise in this area," he said, adding that the parameters of the cooperation were still being hammered out.

"We are working, fully aware of the responsibility that Germany has, also in the context of art looted in connection with National Socialist (Nazi) crimes."

'I'll be back'

After a week of uproar over the revelation that German customs police had nearly two years ago seized hundreds of long-lost works stashed for decades in the home of elderly recluse Cornelius Gurlitt, the government took a few steps toward transparency.

Jewish groups welcomed the measures but urged more decisive action.

The JCC, a US-based Holocaust restitution organisation, called Tuesday for seats on the task force and for all the works found in the Munich flat to be placed on the government website by the year's end.

Investigators believe that of the entire collection found professionally stored in Gurlitt's trash-strewn flat, around 590 works may have been stolen from Jewish owners or bought from them under duress.

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

Gurlitt is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a powerful art dealer commissioned by the Nazis with selling confiscated, looted and extorted works in exchange for hard currency.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was also part of a team collecting works for a Fuehrermuseum planned by Hitler in the Austrian city of Linz that never was built.

His son, depicted in media reports as an eccentric loner, is officially under investigation for tax evasion and misappropriation of assets.

However he is not in custody and prosecutors last week admitted they were unsure of his whereabouts.

French magazine Paris Match spotted him in Munich last week and published a series of photos of an elegantly dressed, white-haired man doing his grocery shopping.

A reporter for Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung approached him Tuesday outside the apartment where the priceless hoard was found and saw him getting into a taxi with a large suitcase on wheels.

"Don't worry, I'll be back," he said.

Meanwhile police in the southwestern city of Munich, along with a team of art experts, have been examining another 22 paintings handed over to them by the brother-in-law of Cornelius Gurlitt, to determine whether there is a link with the Munich stash.

© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse

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