Munich — On the doorbell of the apartment in Munich’s bohemian Schwabing district is a name once distinguished for architecture and music but infamous since the Nazi era by association with the plundering of art works owned by Jews: Gurlitt.
The discovery of hundreds of priceless paintings and drawings within has raised questions about how a man with such a red-flag surname - Cornelius Gurlitt - kept his secret for so long while selling works on the market.
Interviews with relatives, dealers, lawyers and art experts show he moved freely for decades between Germany, Austria and Switzerland to sell from his hoard of Modernist and Renaissance masterpieces. They were not locked in a vault, but stacked in his flat, hiding in plain sight in Germany’s third largest city.
In the art world, which thrives on discretion, it appears to have been an open secret that Cornelius was sitting on at least part of the collection of his father Hildebrand, who worked for the Nazis selling art branded “degenerate” that was taken from museums or stolen or extorted from Jews fleeing the Holocaust.
To everyone else - including, apparently, the Gurlitt clan - it was a shock when authorities reluctantly confirmed a magazine report that a routine customs check had uncovered 1,406 works with a value up to 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion).
“It is absolutely astonishing. I had no idea that such a collection existed,” said Dietrich Gurlitt, a 94-year-old first cousin of Cornelius.
Cornelius Gurlitt, who does not appear to have any living direct family, sat quietly while officers suspecting tax fraud stumbled across racks and drawers containing 121 framed and 1,285 unframed pieces.
He has since vanished. The 79-year-old currently faces no charges and is not on any known wanted list.
LAST TRAIN FROM ZURICH
It was almost by accident that his private “collection” was discovered in the first place.
German customs police routinely check trains from Zurich, looking for potential tax evaders bringing in cash from secret Swiss bank accounts. One officer told Reuters that the five-hour route can provide rich pickings for the German taxman.
On that particular Wednesday night in late September 2010, officers patrolling the last train from Zurich spoke to an elderly man who grew agitated when questioned. He showed officers about 9,000 euros in cash, which was within the legal limit. But something didn’t feel right.
The officers filed a report and a routine inquiry began - which turned into the pursuit of a phantom.