German recluse reaches deal with German authorities over Nazi art trove

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany reached an agreement with an elderly recluse on Monday on the future of a billion-dollar art trove confiscated by the authorities, part of which is suspected of being stolen or extorted by the Nazis.

The federal government and Bavaria state said Mr Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, has agreed to cooperate with the authorities to determine if some of the 1,280 artworks were stolen from their original owners, many of whom were Jewish, during the Nazi era.

Mr Gurlitt has agreed to waive the statute of limitations under which his lawyers claim he is the rightful owner of some of the artworks, which include masterpieces from artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

"We're laying the groundwork for fair and just solutions," said German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters. "We're sending a clear signal to the outside world that we won't allow Nazi injustice to continue 70 years after the end of the war."

The government has been heavily criticised - notably by families whose relatives were robbed by the Nazis - for keeping silent for almost two years about the trove of some 1,400 artworks after paintings were found in Mr Gurlitt's Munich flat.

The stash of paintings, drawings and sculptures has been valued at

€1 billion (S$1.7 billion). In exchange for his cooperation, Mr Gurlitt will get back many other paintings whose provenance is not in doubt.

Mr Gurlitt, whose father took orders from dictator Adolf Hitler to buy and sell so-called "degenerate art" to fund Nazi activities, aroused suspicion in 2010 when German Customs officials stopped him on a train from Switzerland carrying a large sum of cash.

When the authorities raided his apartment in February 2012 on suspicion of tax evasion, they found the collection including modernist and Renaissance masterpieces.

Mr Gurlitt filed an appeal last February at the Augsburg court which issued the search order, challenging the prosecutor's seizure of the artworks on suspicion of tax evasion.

The agreement follows an announcement from him on Monday that a second claimant has come forth seeking the return of Sitting Woman by Matisse, which was slated to be returned to the heirs of late Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg.

The Schwabing Art Trove Task Force, made up of international art experts, has one year to determine the provenance of the collection.

According to the agreement, works which have not been examined within one year will be returned to Mr Gurlitt.