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A search of his flat led them to the sensational find.
Cornelius’s father Hildebrand Gurlitt was from 1920 a specialist collector of the modern art of the early 20th century that the Nazis branded as un-German or “degenerate” and removed from show in state museums.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels recruited Gurlitt to sell the “degenerate art” abroad to try to earn cash for the state. Gurlitt bought some for himself and also independently bought art from desperate Jewish dealers forced to sell.
After the war he persuaded the Americans that, as he had a Jewish grandmother, he himself had been persecuted. He continued working as a dealer and died in a traffic accident in 1956.
Auction houses in Berne, Switzerland and Cologne, which sold some of the art works both said Hildebrand was a known dealer.
Karl-Sax Feddersen, a lawyer with Lempertz auctioneers in Cologne, which sold a pastel drawing of a lion tamer by German expressionist Max Beckmann, said, “from our point of view this is a totally normal case. An old gentleman contacted our Munich office and offered them a Beckmann pastel… we had a restitution problem which we actively addressed and we found a solution ahead of the auction.”
It turned out the artwork had been bought from a Jewish owner under pressure at the time to sell. After selling for 864,00 euros, Cornelius gave a portion to the heirs of the original owner.
Galerie Kornfeld, an auction house and gallery in the Swiss city of Bern, where Gurlitt auctioned paper works for 38,250 Swiss francs (31,000 euros) in 1990, said in a statement the works were purchased cheaply in 1938 by Hildebrand from a collection of state-owned art.
“Cornelius Gurlitt inherited the works after the death of his mother Helene. Basically this is a case of undeclared inheritance.”
The gallery added a clear distinction should be made between looted art and works from the Nazis’ former holdings of state-owned so-called “degenerate art” which can be freely traded.