Ekkeheart Gurlitt has little good to say about his cousin Cornelius, who hoarded hundreds of works by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall for the past half century. There’s one positive thing, though, that he’ll tell you about the 80-year-old recluse: He saved the art.
“Collectors should be happy that Cornelius and his father preserved the paintings rather than let them be destroyed” by Germany’s Nazi regime, said Ekkeheart, who describes Cornelius as “a real oddball” who restored paintings and has a passion for art.
Families of Jewish collectors whose artworks were confiscated or sold under duress in the Nazi era are eager to know just what kind of man Cornelius Gurlitt is. His goodwill may be decisive in whether heirs ever recover their treasures.
Gurlitt could have legal claim to the art because of Germany’s 30-year statute of limitations and a rule called “Ersitzung,” under which the possessor of property gains title after 10 years unless he or she is deemed to have acted in bad faith.
If Gurlitt refuses to negotiate, heirs will have to fight for the art in court -- with little chance of success, according to Bischof & Paetow, a Berlin law firm that specializes in restitution cases.
German authorities discovered the art in March 2012 after investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion.
In a raid, they found his apartment crammed with jars of jam, cartons of fruit juice, and boxes of pasta, according to Focus magazine -- as well as paintings, drawings, and prints by modernist masters such as Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Max Liebermann. The value, Focus reported: 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion).
The German government says 590 works in Gurlitt’s cache may have come from Jewish owners. About 380 were identified as works the Nazis seized from German museums as “degenerate” -- their term for modernist art. The remaining 430 or so works, it said in a Nov. 11 press release, “clearly have no connection with ‘degenerate art’ or Nazi loot.”
Police say they received a further 22 artworks on Nov. 9 from a man near Stuttgart. They described the owner as “very cooperative” and said he was concerned about the safety of the art. The police didn’t name the owner, but Bild am Sonntag identified him as Nikolaus Fraessle, Cornelius’s brother-in-law.
Though the government seized Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection as evidence, many of the works will almost certainly be given back to him once the investigation is complete, according to prosecutors.
“The calls for restitution are understandable, but this is a dispute over private property,” said Ulf Bischof, an attorney at Bischof & Paetow. “Let’s not forget that Gurlitt isn’t the thief. He is the heir of someone who acquired it from a thief.”
In the past, Gurlitt has proven amenable to negotiating with the original owners of art in his collection. In 2011, he consigned Max Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer” for auction at Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. The heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer persecuted by the Nazis, claimed the painting. When it sold for 864,000 euros, Gurlitt shared the proceeds with them.
Since last week’s revelations, he has kept a low profile. Paris Match magazine on Nov. 8 published photos of a white-haired Gurlitt out shopping in a heavy woolen coat. And on Nov. 12, Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported, he left his flat for a doctor’s appointment, saying that he had handed all of his art over to authorities.
Gurlitt didn’t answer his door in Munich or at a home he owns in Salzburg, and didn’t respond to a message left at his Munich apartment.
For years, Gurlitt feared the impact any discovery of the artwork might have on his quiet existence, which made him hesitant to sell, according to Ekkeheart Gurlitt. The sums commanded by works from the likes of Picasso or Henri Matisse meant that they could never be auctioned or donated without raising attention.
“He is a shy old man who has lived his whole life with the problem” of what to do with the art, said Karl-Sax Feddersen, a member of the management board at Kunsthaus Lempertz, which sold Beckmann’s “Lion Tamer” in 2011.
Hitler’s regime seized hundreds of thousands of artworks from Jewish collectors. Though classified by the Nazis as “second-degree mixed-race Jewish,” Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was one of four dealers appointed to sell “degenerate art” abroad to raise foreign currency.
The Gurlitt family has a long history of involvement in the arts, with generations of musicians, artists, scholars and art dealers. Hildebrand, born in Dresden in 1895, ran a gallery in Hamburg until it was destroyed by bombing during the war. In 1942 he returned to Dresden, where he worked for the local museum.
He was also asked to acquire art for Hitler’s planned -- but never built -- Fuehrermuseum in his home town of Linz, Austria. Hildebrand Gurlitt visited Paris about 10 times to purchase works, he told U.S. Army interrogators in June 1945.
He said his annual income had soared to 200,000 reichsmarks (the equivalent of about $1.1 million today) by 1943, from 50,000 reichsmarks before the war. He told the investigators that he was aware Jewish-owned works had been seized by the Germans, but that he had nothing to do with any forced sales or confiscations.
“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 said by telephone from Barcelona, where he works as a photographer.
Given the family’s Jewish heritage, Ekkeheart’s grandfather Willibald -- the brother of Hildebrand -- and his family had to hide from the Nazis. “My father spent six years living in a cellar in Freiburg,” said Ekkeheart, 65.
After Hildebrand’s Dresden home was destroyed by the February 1945 Allied firebombing that leveled much of the city, he and his family -- including the then-12-year-old Cornelius -- fled for the village of Aschbach in Bavaria. It was there that U.S. forces found him, sheltering in the castle of a Baron Poellnitz with crates of art including works by Picasso, Edgar Degas and Dix. Hildebrand Gurlitt died in 1956 in a car crash.
In 1960, Cornelius bought a small stucco house on Carl-Storch-Strasse in Salzburg, two streets away from the original villa of the von Trapp family of “The Sound of Music,” public records show. His neighbors there at first attributed his crankiness to shellshock from the bombing of Dresden.
“He didn’t want anything to do with anyone,” said Helmut Ludescher, who moved into his home two doors down soon after Gurlitt’s arrival. “There were never visitors, never any other cars. He was cantankerous and unapproachable.”
Today, the overgrown garden reaches to the house’s once-whitewashed walls, while the windows are protected by rusting grates. Neighbors said they hadn’t seen Gurlitt or his aging black Volkswagen for at least two years.
“He wanted to live totally anonymously,” said Ekkeheart Gurlitt. “He just wanted to live well, and when the money ran out, use the paintings like a bank.”
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