Many of the paintings appear to be among those the Nazis once confiscated from German museums as “degenerate art”. Others probably belonged to Jews or other private owners whom the Nazis robbed. With their provenance unclear, the investigators kept the art but did not make their discovery public until this month.
They may have violated Mr Gurlitt’s legal rights. He has not so far been accused of any crime. The prosecutor’s office says that it may only investigate its original case of tax evasion. Whether the prosecutor was within his remit to hold paintings unconnected with this allegation is questionable. He will now return a first batch of several hundred paintings whose ownership by Mr Gurlitt is uncontested.
Such legalism misses the point, say others, including Jewish groups. The prosecutor should have made all the art public much sooner so that victims of the Nazis or their descendants could have a look. Moreover, they say, this matter is at heart about the Holocaust and therefore not only legal but also political and moral, and should be handled by the German government.
The government has now appointed a task force to research the art’s provenance. Piece by piece, it is uploading more of it to www.lostart.de, a site where victims or heirs can find works that are rightfully theirs. But that is an ad hoc solution. What the Gurlitt case has exposed is that Germany does not yet have a comprehensive answer to the problem of looted art.
In 1998 Germany and 43 other countries signed the Washington Principles pledging to search their public collections for looted art in order to restitute it. But that does not cover cases of “degenerate art”, which the Nazis took out of state-owned German museums under a 1938 law, which Germany has, amazingly, never officially annulled. Nor does it cover private stashes such as Mr Gurlitt’s.