A German art collector accused of hoarding hundreds of paintings looted from Jews during the Second World War is expected to begin returning the artwork to its owners as early as next week.
Cornelius Gurlitt kept about 1,400 pieces of art in his Munich apartment and around 200 sketches and sculptures in a home in Salzburg, Austria. His father, Hildebrand, acquired the pieces during the 1930s and 1940s while working on commission with the Nazis to sell stolen art and paintings deemed “degenerate” by Adolf Hitler. The collection only came to light recently when German tax officials opened a case against Mr. Gurlitt, 81, who had never paid taxes.
The collection includes works by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Pissaro, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne and Nolde.
“If the works in Salzburg or [Munich] should be justifiably suspected of being Nazi-looted art, please give them back to their Jewish owners,” Mr. Gurlitt told his lawyers, according to a statement from his spokesman.
“Let there be no doubt that we will carry out the instructions of our client. We are about to return a work from the [Munich] portion of the collection that is justifiably suspected of being looted art. Discussions with other claimants have been constructive as well, and we expect to be returning additional works in the coming weeks,” Christoph Edel, a lawyer representing Mr. Gurlitt said in a statement.
One of the first pieces to be turned over will be Henri Matisse’s Sitting Woman which belonged to Paul Rosenberg, a Paris art dealer who fled to the United States just before the Nazi invasion of France. Mr. Rosenberg left more than 160 paintings behind but kept a detailed inventory. He returned to Paris after the war to try to recover his collection, but most of the pieces had vanished, looted by the Nazis and then sold and resold afterward. Mr. Rosenberg’s descendants vowed to keep up the hunt and they hired American lawyer Chris Marinello to help track down the art.
Mr. Marinello, who is based in London, said Thursday that he has been in touch with Mr. Gurlitt’s lawyers but had yet to reach a deal on returning the Matisse. He added that he is travelling to Germany early next week to discuss a possible handover.
When asked if he was pleased at the news that Mr. Gurlitt is willing to return the art, Mr. Marinello said: “I’ll be happy when there is a deal on the table and it’s inked and the painting is back with the family, that’s when I’ll be happy.”
This will be the second major recovery of a Rosenberg piece in recent days. Last week the Henie Onstad Arts Center in Norway handed over another Matisse that also belonged to the Rosenberg collection. The museum acquired the painting when it opened in 1968 from shipping tycoon Neils Onstad and his wife, Olympic skating champion Sonja Heni. Mr. Onstad had bought the Matisse in 1950.
Mr. Marinello approached the museum in 2012 with documentation proving it had belonged to Mr. Rosenberg and had been taken by the Nazis. “We had an incredible provenance, we knew almost every place this painting had been up until about a five year period, from day it was looted,” he said in an interview.
After years of negotiation the museum finally relented and agreed to return the Matisse last Friday. “It really was negotiation, hammering their every legal argument. And they made us jump through hoops,” Mr. Marinello added.
In a statement the chairman of the museum’s board, Halvor Stenstadvold said an extensive investigation “led to the decision that the return is justified.” He added that the decision “will most likely impact other Norwegian institutions” if a similar situation arises.