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Lots of Looted Art Recovered and Three Pieces Returned

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Europe—Looted Holocaust art has landed in the news recently. The Netherlands will return three paintings by 17th century Dutch masters to the descendants of Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. The paintings were by Philips Wouwerman, Dominicus van Tol and Hendrik Gerritsz. In 2006, they returned more than 200 paintings to the family. Experts believe that dozens of Dutch museums are in possession of at least 139 items with “problematic origins.”

The bigger story was the discovery of a cache of 1400 paintings worth more than a billion dollars in an apartment in Munich—which German police seized two years ago, but never made public. The find includes Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Courbet and other knock-your-eyes-out names. The police found the paintings when they went after tax evader Cornelius Gurlitt, son of German art dealer Hildebrandt Gurlitt, a Nazi collaborator. The Munich resident has since disappeared and, according to Haaretz, his neighbors presume he is dead.

The German authorities have yet to explain the delay in reporting the find, and informed the Chancellery only a few months ago. The paintings, in generally good condition, were discovered in what the German newspapers called a hovel. The list of paintings or pictures of them will not be posted on line at this time.

The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that some of the Nazi-looted art had been confiscated from Hildebrandt Gurlitt by the Allied Forces in 1945 and were returned to him in the 1950s. He left them to his son, who is supposed to have lived an almost hermit-like existence and who sold them off as needed.

Haaretz reported that Tel Aviv-based attorney Joel Levi, an expert on looted Holocaust art, told them that “the works that were discovered in Munich are only the tip of the iceberg,” and suggested that thousands of additional works may be stored in other places. The German Weekly Focus also suspects that there are additional stolen works in other places—and the Austrian media reported that Gurlitt owns another house in Salzburg, Austria. But Munich customs director, Siegfried Kloeble, who is working the case, disagrees and says no one will find more.

The chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, wants a thorough accounting of why the find was not made public when it happened. He says that the story proves that the Holocaust was not only mass murder, but mass robbery as well.

Ruediger Mahlo of The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), has demanded that Germany return looted paintings to their rightful owners. “It cannot be, as in this case, that what amounts morally to the concealment of stolen goods continues,” he said.

The heirs of Jewish businessman David Friedmann hope for the return of Two Riders on the Beach, a 1901 painting by Max Liebermann that was part of Friedmann’s collection. They saw the painting on TV when the story of the cache discovery was aired and had previously listed the painting, as well as others, on Germany’s Lost Art Internet Database, a registry of art works looted in the Holocaust.