25 Nov 2014

Swiss museum accepts Nazi art trove

9:18 am on 25 November 2014

Switzerland's Bern Art Museum (KMB) has agreed to accept artworks from a billion-dollar collection which includes masterpieces looted from their Jewish owners by the Nazis.

The collection belonged to the recluse Cornelius Gurlitt who died in May.

Christoph Schaeublin of the Bern Art Museum.

Christoph Schaeublin of the Bern Art Museum. Photo: Reuters

He had secretly kept the more than 1200 artworks hidden for decades until tax inspectors stumbled upon them during a visit to his Munich apartment in 2012.

The museum discovered it had been named Gurlitt's sole heir after his death.

The World Jewish Congress has warned it risks an "avalanche" of lawsuits by accepting the works, which include famous masterpieces by Chagall and Picasso, among others.

Christoph Schaeublin of the Bern Art Museum announced in Berlin it would accept all artworks bequeathed by Mr Gurlitt which experts had ascertained had not been stolen by the Nazis.

Others would remain with German authorities while their provenance is checked he said.

"This wasn't an easy decision for us and there were no shouts of joy," Schaeublin said, admitting that the museum had to be persuaded by German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters to accept the bequest.

"Any works of art deemed to be looted art, or even considered likely to have been looted art, will never darken the doorstep of the KMB," said Schaeublin, president of the museum's board of trustees. He said they would "not even touch Swiss territory".

The collection of masterpieces was assembled by Mr Gurlitt's father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a dealer charged with selling what Adolf Hitler dismissed as "degenerate" art.

A government task force has already identified three pieces indisputably taken by the Nazis which would be returned - by Max Liebermann, Henri Matisse and Carl Spitzweg.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs