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Reclusive art collector Gurlitt dies at 81

File photo of controversial German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt.
Unclear future for trove of Nazi-looted art owned by German hoarder

The elderly German recluse whose Munich apartment contained a secret art hoard, including masterpieces looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners in World War Two, has died after a heart operation. A spokesman for the reclusive German collector, who died at age 81 at his Munich home, said Gurlitt had living relatives but he would not say who they are. Stephan Holzinger said the 81-year-old Gurlitt had decided to return home, looked after by his doctor and a nurse after a complicated heart operation, and spend his final days in the Munich flat that once housed part of his beloved collection.

It was also not immediately clear whether Gurlitt had written a will or whether a Munich court would appoint a curator of estate, which is often done in Germany if there are open questions surrounding an inheritance. After much back and forth, Gurlitt eventually agreed last month to a deal with the German government under which hundreds of works he owned would be checked for possible Nazi-era links while staying in government hands. A Bavarian Justice Ministry spokeswoman yesterday said the deal would be binding on all possible heirs. Initially, Gurlitt had insisted that all of the art work belonged to him and nobody else.

“Everybody involved — the authorities as well as private people who think some of the art may have once belonged to their families — wants to know more than anything what’s going to happen to the collection,” said Markus Stoetzel, a German lawyer specializing in the restitution of Nazi-looted art. “The only thing we know for sure at this point is that the painful process of recovering art taken under Nazi terror will be further delayed,” he added.

Monika Gruetters, Germany’s Culture Minister, said yesterday that Gurlitt’s decision to work with authorities deserved “recognition and respect.”

“It will remain to Cornelius Gurlitt’s credit that he ... sent an exemplary signal for the search for fair and just solutions with this avowal of moral responsibility,” she said.

The unexpected trove

Authorities stumbled upon Cornelius Gurlitt’s trove of paintings and drawings by the likes of Marc Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso in 2012 after a routine check on a train from Switzerland turned up wads of cash, triggering a tax inquiry.

Gurlitt’s collection of 1,280 artworks was assembled by his father Hildebrand, an art dealer put in charge of selling what Adolf Hitler called “degenerate” art, and ordered to be removed from state museums to help fund the Nazis’ war effort.

Now worth an estimated one billion euros (US$1.4 billion), the hoard remained undetected for decades in the Munich flat and a house over the Austrian border in Salzburg. Gurlitt sold pieces occasionally to finance his quiet lifestyle and his healthcare.

“I haven’t loved anything more than my pictures in my life. But hopefully it will all be cleared up soon and I will finally get my pictures back,” he told German magazine Der Spiegel in a rare interview last November, when he was already very frail.

But a lawyer for one US-based claimant said Gurlitt’s death should mean that German authorities have fewer reasons for delaying the return of looted artworks to their rightful heirs. “Mr Gurlitt’s death, if anything, gives them fewer excuses for not turning the painting over immediately,” said August Matteis, a Washington-based attorney for US claimant David Toren, a retired lawyer who has a claim on Two Riders on the Beach by German Impressionist Max Liebermann, who was Jewish.

“Some of the excuses that Germany was using are now out of the way — for example, that there’s an active investigation regarding Mr Gurlitt’s potential tax evasion, and that Mr Gurlitt may have a claim or something,” Matteis told reporters.

The provenance of other pieces has been established and their return authorized, including the Henri Matisse portrait Sitting Woman. It belonged to the Paris-based Jewish collector Paul Rosenberg and found its way into the collection of Hitler’s air force chief Hermann Goering, before ending up with Gurlitt.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was arrested as a Nazi collaborator but freed because he was one-quarter Jewish. He persuaded the “Monuments Men” — a military unit set up by the Allies to save Europe’s cultural heritage, as portrayed in a movie by George Clooney — to return about 100 of his works that they had confiscated.

In his son Cornelius Gurlitt’s mind, the German state had no right to impound treasures he called the love of his life. Cornelius agreed to cooperate with authorities to determine if any of the art had been stolen or extorted from its original owners, including Jewish collectors fleeing the Holocaust, under an agreement that permitted a task force to research the works of suspicious provenance while others were returned to him.

Herald with Reuters, AP

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