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Art haul amazes, vexes

The art world was shocked by the discovery of 1,500 modernist masterpieces. But what should happen to them now?

Amazement will be a common initial reaction to the news that the modest Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt was the hiding place for a €1bn (Dh4.9bn) treasure trove of art that had been missing since the Nazi era.

But the second reaction is to ask what should happen to the collection of 1,500 modernist masterpieces by artists of the calibre of Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and Chagall.

The question is more vexed than simply determining the provenance of the artworks – a difficult enough proposition after 70 years – and returning them to the descendants of the rightful owners, some of whom are likely to have been Jews fleeing persecution.

Much of the art would not exist at all if not for having been taken by Gurlitt’s father, art dealer and Nazi associate Hildebrand Gurlitt, because it included so-called “degenerate” abstract works that were despised by the Nazi regime.

The complexity of how to deal with the collection might explain why the German authorities kept quiet about the discovery for nearly two years until it was revealed in a magazine. Maybe it’s best to go back to being amazed and hope the collection will one day go on proper display.

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