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Nazi looted art? Shadow over art bequest to Bern museum

The art world was left reeling when Cornelius Gurlitt bequeathed his inherited collection of paintings, drawings and sketches – some of which are thought to be looted Nazi art – to the Kunstmuseum in Bern. The institute now has to decide whether to accept the trove. (SRF Kulturplatz / swissinfo.ch)

The collection, worth an estimated CHF1.23 billion ($1.4 billion), includes works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse. Gurlitt had made a will shortly before his death in Munich.

The museum said on Thursday that a delegation would travel to the German city shortly to gain an overview of the collection.

Its director Matthias Frehner told the Wall Street Journal Europe that the institute would decide within six months whether to accept the bequest. If it does, the museum would abide by the 1998 “Washington Principles” agreement under which art institutions are obliged to return any looted art or compensate their original owners, he said.

Gurlitt’s father Hildebrand was Nazi Germany’s leading expert on modern art, personally tasked by Hitler to sell paintings he disliked abroad to help fund the Third Reich’s war effort.

However, Gurlitt Snr secretly kept many of the pictures for himself and passed them on to his son. The works were said to have been taken from Jewish families and German museums that the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate". Cornelius Gurlitt apparently also inherited artworks, including examples by Picasso and Matisse, from his mother.

In 2012, German tax officials raided Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich and found a secret hoard of more than 1,400 artworks, thought to have been lost in the war. The officials were looking for possible undeclared income after Gurlitt, returning from Switzerland by train, was found by customs officers to be carrying a large sum of cash. The paintings were confiscated to determine their provenance.

A court later decided he could get between 300 and 350 of the paintings back as there was no evidence that these were looted.

In February this year, more paintings, worth around CHF150 million ($169 million) were found in a house he owned in Salzburg. The 238 artworks were secured by Gurlitt’s representatives. Gurlitt was never under investigation in Austria and those works were not seized by authorities.

A spokesman for the Gurlitt family told the BBC that a probate court will now determine if the will is valid.

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