A public prosecutor in Augsburg will release the artworks they seized from the home of reclusive collector Cornelius Gurlitt two years ago, making the 81-year-old again the owner of the most contentious private collection in recent German history.
While the artworks' legal status may have changed, they are likely to remain in a secret location in Bavaria for now. Gurlitt has signed an agreement with German authorities to allow a task force of experts to continue examining the providence of the works for another year. The process has been criticised for its slow progress and lack of transparency.
In 2012, 1,280 works including pieces by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse were seized from Gurlitt's Munich home by investigators who suspected some of them had originally been looted by the Nazis. When the find was made public last November, many hoped any stolen works in the collection would eventually be returned to the descendants of the rightful owners, many of them Jewish collectors.
But five months later, the case has become caught up in bureaucracy. On Wednesday the public prosecutor in Augsburg had to give in to a complaint from Gurlitt's lawyers and release the hoard. While Gurlitt is still being investigated for possible tax evasion, he is again the rightful owner of the pictures, unless it can be proved that some of them count as looted art.
Stephan Holzinger, a spokesman for Gurlitt, said the ruling was a significant step in redeeming the collector's name. "This is a good day for Cornelius Gurlitt," he said.
About 500 artworks were originally suspected of having been looted by the Nazis, though Gurlitt's legal team puts the number much lower.
Holzinger said 300 to 350 were owned by the Gurlitt family before Hitler came to power. Gurlitt's lawyers said they were aware of only seven restitution claims so far.
It remains unclear where the works will eventually end up - Gurlitt's spokesman said he would not comment "for security reasons".