BERLIN - Two German museums returned more than 80 artworks today to a Jewish art-lover's heirs decades after they first sought compensation for a collection seized by the Nazis.
At a Berlin ceremony, officials from the western city of Hanover handed over an oil painting by Lovis Corinth valued at up to $470,000, while the eastern city of Leipzig returned more than 80 works, mostly drawings and prints by Max Klinger.
The handover comes a year after a request to the museums on behalf of the heirs of Leipzig-based publisher Gustav Kirstein by the Commission for Art Recovery, a body set up by the World Jewish Congress to help heirs reclaim art treasures stolen during World War II from their families.
"I'm overwhelmed with emotion," said Thekla Stein Nordwind, a niece of Kirstein who traveled from the United States for the ceremony. "I never thought we'd see this moment, though it is a bittersweet moment."
Embarrassed by stories such as that of the Kirstein heirs, whose request for compensation was rejected by the authorities in 1964, the German government has urged museums to comb their collections for possible looted art and publish the details to encourage new claims.
At a conference in 1988 in Washington, 44 countries endorsed guidelines intended to push nations, museums, galleries and individuals to re-examine collections and archives in an unprecedented search for the lost assets of Holocaust victims.
A follow-up conference is scheduled Oct. 3 in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Other stolen artworks in Poland, Hungary and Germany will be returned to the heirs shortly, said Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery and a former U.S. ambassador to Austria.
Kirstein, a specialist in the color reproduction of artworks, had already lost his job under anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Nazis before he died in 1934, leaving his collection to his wife.
Five years later, she committed suicide after Hitler's secret police confiscated her passport a day before she was due to follow the couple's two daughters in emigrating to the United States.
The collection, like the possessions of many Jewish families who fled growing Nazi persecution, was seized and auctioned off.
The individual works turned up years later in private collections and museums, including Hanover's Sprengel Museum and the Museum of Plastic Arts in Leipzig.
The Corinth painting is to be exhibited in Germany, the United States and Britain before being auctioned in London next month so that the proceeds can be split between the five heirs. The fate of the other works hasn't yet been decided.