Cornelius Gurlitt Dies: Nazi-Era Art Dealer's Son Hoarded 1,200 Works

Tuesday, 06 May 2014 02:44 PM

By Nick Sanchez

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Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer who hoarded more than 1,200 paintings by artists including Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse, and Paul Gauguin, died in his Munich apartment on Tuesday at the age of 81.

Stephan Holzinger, his spokesman, told Bloomberg News Gurlitt died in the presence of his doctor and nurse.

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Authorities found Gurlitt's collection by chance just a few years ago after he was stopped for a random search on a train trip returning from Switzerland. He was found to have a large sum of cash, which tipped off state tax officials. The German government raided his apartment on suspicion of tax evasion in February 2012 after finding a large cache of paintings tucked away in his apartment behind food and juice cans.

The reclusive Gurlitt initially refused to say a word to reporters after the paintings were seized from his Munich apartment in Germany and house in Salzburg, Austria, but after Spiegel magazine offered up a reporter to spend a few days with him, he made a few statements.

Gurlitt explained that he inherited the paintings from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a former museum director and one of only four dealers authorized under the Nazi regime to deal modern art. His father was considered "degenerate," in order to raise foreign money. He was classified as "second-degree mixed-race Jewish."

Many of the pieces were confiscated from Jewish families, while others were purchased legally. Many of the pieces are thought to have originally belonged to Paul Rosenberg of France, who represented Picasso, Matisse, and other artists before fleeing the war.

The collection, which is now estimated to be worth more than $1.4 billion, was Gurlitt's most prized treasure, and he told Spiegel magazine he didn't quite understand why the government wouldn't let him live in peace with his pieces.

"What do these people want from me? I’m just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures," he said. 

Bloomberg reported that Gurlitt was indeed a quiet person, "isolated from the outside world," who "stopped watching television in 1963, booked hotel rooms months in advance by post when he had to travel, and never used the Internet."

As part of the ongoing proceedings regarding the art, a massive effort to identify past owners who may be owed restitution for their losses has begun.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that with his passing, "It was not clear if Mr. Gurlitt had drawn up a will that would stipulate what would happen to his collection."

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