A Swiss museum on Monday accepted a German recluse's bequest of a spectacular trove of more than 1,000 artworks hoarded during the Nazi era, but pledged to restitute any looted pieces.
The decision, announced at a news conference in Berlin, covers valuable paintings and sketches by Picasso, Monet, Chagall and other masters that were discovered at two homes owned by Cornelius Gurlitt.
Gurlitt, who died last May aged 81, was the son of an art dealer tasked by Adolf Hitler with helping to plunder great works from museums and Jewish collectors, many of whom perished in the gas chambers.
After six months of negotiations with the German government, Christoph Schaeublin, president of the Board of Trustees at the the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, vowed to work with German authorities to ensure that "all looted art in the collection is returned" to its rightful owners.
Around 500 works of dubious provenance will remain in Germany so that a government-appointed task force can continue its research on identifying the heirs.The trove of 1,280 works was unearthed in Gurlitt's cluttered Munich flat during a routine tax inquiry in 2012. More than 300 other works were later discovered in a ramshackle house Gurlitt owned in Salzburg.
Although he was never charged with a crime, German authorities confiscated all of the Munich pieces and stored them in a secret location.
Gurlitt struck an accord with the German government shortly before his death to help track down the paintings' legitimate heirs.
But his anger over his treatment reportedly led him to stipulate in his will that the collection should go not to a German museum but to the Swiss institution.
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters called the accord "a milestone in coming to terms with our history" during the Third Reich.She said the German government was committed to returning the looted works to Jewish descendants "as soon as possible, with no ifs, ands or buts".
But "we're at the beginning, not the end, of a long road," she admitted.
Schaeublin described a feeling of "mitigated joy" in accepting the remarkable collection, and the historical responsibility it carries.
Under the terms of the agreement, nearly 480 avant-garde works deemed by the Nazis to be "degenerate art", not befitting the ideals of the Third Reich, would be loaned by Bern primarily to institutions from which they were confiscated.
Had the Swiss museum unexpectedly turned down the offer, the pieces would have been divided up among relatives of Gurlitt, who never married and had no children. One of Gurlitt's cousins, 86-year-old Uta Werner, said Friday she was contesting Gurlitt's soundness of mind when he wrote the will naming the Bern museum as his sole heir.
This could return the case to legal limbo, with ageing Jewish descendants left to fight for their claims in German courts for years to come.
After the discovery of the Gurlitt trove came to light in a magazine article last year, Jewish groups and the US and Israeli governments put pressure on Germany to establish a task force to investigate the works' provenance.
The Jewish Claims Conference, a Holocaust restitution organisation, called on the task force to now ensure a "faster and more intensive processing of the looted art cases, with the greatest possible transparency".
In the case of a Matisse painting found in the stash, called "Seated Woman" and believed to be worth around $20 million, the task force determined in June that the work was "Nazi loot" stolen from Paris art collector Paul Rosenberg.
Gruetters said that three such works whose provenance had been determined including the Matisse would be restituted "without delay".
The lawyer representing Rosenberg's heirs, Christopher Marinello, told AFP his clients welcomed the accord and hoped they could reclaim the painting by year's end.
Rosenberg's descendants include French journalist Anne Sinclair, former wife of ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
However Marinello, whose law practise specialises in art stolen under the Third Reich, said the Gurlitt case was only the tip of the iceberg.
"The problem of Nazi-looted art is very much with us 75 years later and I think the reason... is that it hasn't been adequately dealt with by museums, by the collectors, and cultural institutions all over the world," he said.
"In my view there are more Cornelius Gurlitts out there."