BERLIN (AP) -- The German government knew for 19 months that a huge trove of art, possibly including works stolen by the Nazis, had been found in Bavaria, but kept quiet while prosecutors carried out their investigation.
Jewish groups and lawyers for heirs who might have a claim to the works have criticized the secrecy surrounding the case, and the fact that the government only sprang into action after it was revealed by Germany media earlier this month.
But since Focus magazine reported on the case Nov. 3, the government has put together a specialist task force and urged prosecutors to release details of some 590 items that may have been looted by the Nazis -- while stressing that it doesn't want to interfere in the ongoing legal probe.
The government initially acknowledged only that it had been informed about the case "for several months." But a spokesman for the Bavarian Justice Ministry said Friday that federal officials were told about the find on March 21 or 22, 2012 -- less than a month after some 1,406 pictures were discovered in a Munich apartment following a tax investigation.
Hannes Hedke told The Associated Press that at the time a representative of the Chancellery in Berlin was also handed a list and photographs of the works seized "because there was a suspicion early on that there might be goods involved that belonged to third parties."
Legal experts have said that claims against Cornelius Gurlitt, the collector in whose Munich apartment the paintings, prints and drawings were found, could be hard to enforce because of Germany's 30-year statute of limitations.
Bavaria's Justice Minister Winfried Bausback told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper in an interview published Friday that it would be "difficult to stomach" if the statute of limitations prevented heirs from recovering their pictures, and suggested changes to the law might be possible.
Michael Hulton, a doctor living in the United States, was able to reach an out-of-court agreement with Gurlitt two years ago over the sale of a Max Beckmann picture. The painting had once belonged to his great-uncle, the late Jewish collector Alfred Flechtheim.
Hulton said if the trove now discovered in Munich contains more items from the Flechtheim collection a similar deal might be conceivable.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Friday that the head of the task force set up to help investigate the works would contact Gurlitt directly. The collector hasn't publicly said whether he wants to have the paintings back.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.