|German recluse ready to return Nazi-looted art; Matisse's "Sitting Woman" will be the first|
A reproduction of a painting by French painter Henri Matisse titled 'Seated woman' 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 found in an apartment belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt, the octogenarian son of art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, had stashed around 1,400 long-lost works by European masters in his Munich apartment and more than 200 paintings and sketches in a home in Salzburg, Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE.
By: Deborah Cole
BERLIN (AFP).- An elderly German recluse is prepared to return precious paintings stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families including a priceless Matisse, his spokesman said.
Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, had around 1,400 long-lost works by European masters stashed in his Munich apartment and more than 200 paintings, sketches and sculptures in a home in Salzburg, Austria.
His spokesman said that Gurlitt -- the son of a Nazi-era art dealer -- had ordered his legal team to hand back works believed to have been stolen or extorted from Jewish families as part of the systematic plunder of art collections by the Nazis during World War II.
"Should there be the well-founded suspicion that works are looted art then please give them back to their Jewish owners," Gurlitt told his lawyer, according to his spokesman Stephan Holzinger.
Henri Matisse's "Sitting Woman" will be the first work returned, to the heirs of prominent Paris art collector Paul Rosenberg, Holzinger said.
The painting shows a stout, dark-haired woman in a floral dress sitting in a chair in a room with vibrant wall coverings.
The Nazis stole the work from Rosenberg and it was kept for a time in the vast looted art trove of Hermann Goering, the Gestapo secret police founder and air force chief.
"We are very confident about reaching a deal on the return in the coming days," Holzinger told AFP.
Gurlitt's father Hildebrand acquired the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, when he worked as an art dealer tasked by the Nazis with selling stolen works and avant-garde art the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate".
A task force appointed to research the origins of the Gurlitt works says it suspects that 458 were stolen or extorted from Jewish owners under Hitler.
It says another 380 pieces are believed to have been confiscated as "degenerate" art, mainly from public collections and museums.
A much larger hoard
Germany came under fire for initially keeping the Gurlitt find under wraps, and faces renewed pressure over its post-World War II restitution efforts.
Lawmakers are currently debating a law to ditch a 30-year statute of limitations that has provided cover for people in possession of contested artwork.
Meanwhile Gurlitt's representatives have acknowledged that the stash at his home in Salzburg was much larger and more valuable than first thought.
Originally said to include 60 works following the discovery in February, the collection at the ramshackle Austrian house in fact comprises a total of 238 pieces including 39 oil paintings and watercolours by Monet, Corot, Renoir, Manet, Courbet, Pissaro, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Liebermann, Cezanne and Nolde, Holzinger said.
Among the best-known in that collection are Monet's "Waterloo Bridge" and Renoir's "Man with a Pipe".
Holzinger said the additional works had been unearthed during two subsequent trips to the house, in rooms that had previously been inaccessible due to an accumulation of clutter.
Gurlitt's lawyer, Christoph Edel, said in a statement that his client plans to seek the opinion of international experts to determine the provenance of the works in the Salzburg collection "so those staking claims can contact us directly".
Unlike the original find, which was seized by German authorities, the works in Austria have been placed in safe-keeping by Gurlitt's team.
In response to Gurlitt's announcement, the Holocaust restitution organisation Claims Conference welcomed the fact that artworks would soon be returning to their rightful owners but said independent scholars should do the provenance research.
"It is not enough for Gurlitt and his team to appoint experts," the group's representative in Germany, Ruediger Mahlo, said.
He said all the works including the latest finds should be published on an online database, www.lostart.de, to facilitate restitution efforts.
"It must not be allowed that artworks robbed from Jewish Holocaust victims can remain with the heirs of the Nazi regime's profiteers," Mahlo said in a statement.
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