Germany has returned three works of art to a descendant of a Jewish French collector who owned them until his death in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France.
Two of the pictures came from a trove of works held by Cornelius Gurlitt, which was discovered in 2012 by German tax inspectors in Munich. His father had been one of Hitler’s art dealers and sold what the Nazis dismissed as “degenerate” art.
The day after Gurlitt’s death in 2014, Bern’s Museum of Fine Arts learnt it had been named as the sole heirexternal link to 1,500 works, including paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
At a ceremony in Berlin on Wednesday, German Culture Minister Monika Grütters said the return of the pictures was a small but important step.
“We Germans know of our wrongdoing and know that we can never put right the misery. But at least returning these kinds of art works are small but important and necessary steps towards justice in one small area," she said.
A great-niece of the pictures’ owner, Parisian lawyer and art collector Armand Dorville, said she was very touched by their return.
“If pictures could speak, if they could tell us their journey, they would tell us an incredible amount about robbery, theft, fraudulent sales and what we can learn from that,” she said at the ceremony, asking not to be identified.
The two pictures from the Gurlitt collection were a watercolour entitled “Lady in an Evening Dress” and an oil painting “Portrait of a Lady” by Jean-Louis Forain. The third work, “Amazonian on Rearing Horse”, was a drawing by Constantin Guys which had been in private ownership.
All three had belonged to Dorville, who sought refuge at his estate in the Dordogne in unoccupied France in June 1940, where he died about a year later. Other members of his family perished at the Auschwitz death camp.
When anti-Semitic legislation was imposed in German-occupied France, Dorville’s heirs decided to sell the pictures at auction in Nice in 1942. It was not clear who bought them, but the family were not allowed to use the proceeds, which instead went to the Vichy government.
The German government said 13 art works had now been returned to their lawful owners after being identified as looted art.