Collector of Billion-Dollar Nazi-Looted Art Trove Denies Works Were Stolen From Jews

Reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt Speaks Out for First Time

Art Cave: Cornelius Gurlitt lived a secluded life in this apartment, keeping the shades drawn and his door locked.
getty images
Art Cave: Cornelius Gurlitt lived a secluded life in this apartment, keeping the shades drawn and his door locked.

By Reuters

Published November 17, 2013.
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GOVERNMENT EMBARRASSED

Since another German magazine broke the story of the find, the Berlin government has faced sharp criticism at home and abroad for keeping it secret for nearly two years.

Having initially declined to give full details, the government has now begun posting more online to help people hunting works stolen by the Nazis, or bought under duress, from Jews fleeing persecution before and during the Holocaust.

But the legal status of the hoard is unclear. Lawyers working on reclaiming property for heirs to Jewish collectors say Gurlitt may get to keep at least some.

Some works may have been acquired when the Nazis ordered German curators to strip from their galleries the “degenerate art” that Hitler, a former student of painting, disliked.

Gurlitt said his father, an art historian hired to sell such works to raise funds for the Nazis and also to found a “Fuehrermuseum” near Hitler’s birthplace, would not have stolen from Jews or taken advantage of those forced into selling.

“It could be that my father was offered things privately but he certainly wouldn’t have taken it,” Gurlitt told Der Spiegel. “He would have considered that wrong.”

Hildebrand Gurlitt used his own partly Jewish origins, which had cost him his job in the 1930s, to avoid prison as a Nazi official after the war. After he died in car accident in 1956, his widow told officials his collection was destroyed along with the family home in the Allied bombing of Dresden.

CHAGALL ON THE SHELF

Cornelius said he himself had had “nothing to do with acquiring the pictures, only with saving them”. He spoke of helping his father load them onto a truck as Soviet troops approached Dresden and of moving them first to a nearby farm, then to the castle of an aristocrat in southern Germany.

While his father, a scion of a celebrated cultural dynasty, rubbed shoulders with the avant-garde artists and writers of his day, the son dropped out of art history studies and remained dependent on his parents and younger sister.

Yet he went on to outlive them all, alone in his flat with a Kirchner over his bed and a Chagall on a shelf.

Speaking to the interviewer during what he called a regular trip to see a heart specialist in another city, Gurlitt said he had no lawyer to represent him as state prosecutors decide what to do with the artworks: “Because I never needed one,” he said.

Pictured on the cover of Der Spiegel over the headline “Conversations with a Phantom”, the white-haired Gurlitt smiled nervously, sitting aboard a train in an overcoat and scarf.

At times, he seemed to contradict himself.

“I’ve never committed a crime,” he said. “And if I have, it would have already expired,” he added, referring to the statute of limitations on offences. While probing the provenance of the artworks, prosecutors have laid no charges, though officials say they are looking into possible tax and customs duty fraud.

Gurlitt said the last painting he sold was Max Beckmann’s “The Lion Tamer”, from 1930, trough a German auction house in 2011. He said he shared the 725,000 euros proceeds with people who he said claimed to be the rightful owners, using his share to finance his upkeep and his medical bills - he needed money, he said, because he had not claimed his state pension.

“I am not as brave as my father. He lived for his art and fought for it,” said Gurlitt. “Now the pictures are in a cellar somewhere and I’m all alone. Why couldn’t they just leave the pictures and only take the ones they wanted to check? Then everything wouldn’t be so empty.”

“They could have waited for the pictures until I am dead.”


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