BERLIN - A German prosecutor investigating a billion-dollar art hoard found in a Munich apartment called for some of the works to be returned to their reclusive owner while experts examine if others were stolen or extorted by the Nazis.
Reinhard Nemetz, state prosecutor in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, said late on Tuesday that pieces from the stash of more than 1,400 paintings and drawings that clearly belong to Cornelius Gurlitt should be given back as soon as possible.
Media reports have put the value of a collection that includes works by Duerer, Delacroix, Picasso, Matisse and German expressionists Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at 1 billion euros (S$1.68 billion).
Gurlitt, the 80-year-old son of a war-era art dealer put in charge of selling confiscated "degenerate" art by Adolf Hitler, has demanded his art back. Bild newspaper reported that some 400 works would be returned to him.
Nemetz said in a statement that the pieces that "without a doubt" belonged to Gurlitt should be handed back "without delay", drawing criticism from the World Jewish Congress.
German authorities have faced criticism from around the world for keeping the hoard a secret for nearly two years, and the prosecutor did not inform the public or families with potential ownership claims until a magazine broke the story earlier this month.
The government has since set up a task force and begun posting details online to help people hunting works stolen by the Nazis, or bought under duress, from Jews fleeing persecution during the Holocaust. "I've asked the newly created task force to give me the names of these pieces of art as quickly as possible," Nemetz said, referring to art that it determines was obtained legally by Gurlitt's father Hildebrand.
The legal status of much of the hoard is nevertheless unclear. Lawyers working on reclaiming property for heirs to Jewish collectors say Gurlitt may get to keep at least some.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder called for the German government to step in, after the country failed to deal with the issue of Nazi-looted art after World War Two. "It now appears that (the prosecutor) wants to rid himself of a problem that he has been unable to handle properly for a long time," Lauder said in a statement. "That is irresponsible. This issue should be deal with at the highest political level and not be left with a single prosecutor in Augsburg."
Some works may have been acquired when the Nazis ordered German curators to strip from their galleries the "degenerate art" that Hitler, a former student of painting, disliked.
Gurlitt has said he helped his father save some of the works from wartime Dresden and said the state had no right to impound treasures he called the love of his life.
Gurlitt said his father, an art historian hired to sell such works to raise funds for the Nazis and also to found a planned"Fuehrermuseum" near Hitler's birthplace, would not have stolen from Jews or taken advantage of those forced into selling.
Cornelius Gurlitt insisted he inherited them legally and sold only an occasional masterpiece from his Munich apartment to cover medical and living expenses, as he claimed no pension.
Customs officers found him crossing the Swiss border by train in 2010 with a large sum in cash, eventually prompting a raid on his apartment early last year during which prosecutors confiscated the works, some long thought lost in the war and others hitherto undocumented.