Cornelius Gurlitt, the German art collector who for decades kept a secret trove of masterpieces before agreeing to return works that once belonged to Jews under the Nazi regime, has died. He was 81.
He died today at his apartment in Munich in the presence of his doctor and nurse, according to a statement e-mailed by his spokesman, Stephan Holzinger.
The chance discovery of more than 1,400 modernist works in a 2012 raid by tax authorities at Gurlitt’s apartment in Munich unearthed paintings, sketches and prints long given up as lost or destroyed under Adolf Hitler’s rule. Gurlitt inherited the collection with an estimated value of more than 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), including works by Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse and Paul Gauguin, from his father Hildebrand, one of four dealers authorized by the Nazis to sell confiscated art abroad.
In February, an additional 60 pieces were found in Gurlitt’s house in Salzburg, Austria. The reclusive art owner lived alone and struggled to grasp the media scrutiny after Germany’s Focus magazine published a November 2013 article exposing the trove.
“What do these people want from me?” he said in a 2013 interview with Spiegel magazine. “I’m just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures.”
Gurlitt’s death shifts the disposition of the collection to the courts, according to Holzinger, his spokesman.
“It is now the task of the court handling estate matters to determine whether there is a valid will or inheritance contract,” he said today in a telephone interview.
Isolated from the outside world, Gurlitt stopped watching television in 1963, booked hotel rooms months in advance by mail when he had to travel, and never used the Internet, according to Spiegel magazine. His collection was discovered in a raid after authorities became suspicious when he was found carrying 9,000 euros during a random search at the Swiss border in 2010. He was returning from a visit to Bern to sell some artwork there.
Hitler’s regime seized hundreds of thousands of artworks from Jewish collectors. Though classified by the Nazis as “second-degree mixed-race Jewish,” Hildebrand Gurlitt was permitted to sell what the German dictator called “degenerate art” abroad to raise foreign currency.
Most of Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection is thought to have been acquired legally, though he was in contact with art owners who had restitution claims on works that were in his possession.
In March, David Toren, a retired New York lawyer, sued Germany in a Washington court for the return of a Max Liebermann painting allegedly taken from his great-uncle under the Nazis.
“My whole family had a lot of paintings but we gave them to Cornelius’s family because he had connections and the possibility to hide them,” Ekkeheart Gurlitt, a cousin of Cornelius Gurlitt, said in a November 2013 interview.
Born on Dec. 28, 1932, in Hamburg, Gurlitt lived through the northern German city’s bombing raids during World War II. He had a younger sister, Benita.
Moving often with his family, he attended a high school in Dresden, a rural boarding school in southwestern Germany from 1946 to 1948 and then graduated in Dusseldorf, according to Spiegel magazine. Gurlitt then studied art history at the University of Cologne.
“There is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures,” Gurlitt said.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org Angela Cullen