Reclusive Collector at Center of Nazi-looted Art Scandal Dies

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Paintings by Chagall, Rodin, Matisse and others were among 1,400 artworks found at Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich home. Credit: AFP

BERLIN – German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, who made headlines round the world for possessing a large trove of artworks that includes pieces stolen from Jews by the Nazis, died after a heart operation in Munich on Tuesday his spokesman said on Tuesday.

His spokesman Stephan Holzinger said 81-year-old Gurlitt had decided to return home, looked after by his doctor and a nurse after a complicated heart operation, and spend his final days in the Munich flat that once housed part of his beloved collection.

He passed away a month after signing an agreement with the German government to resolve the issue of the stolen artworks, which has been convulsing both the art world and groups involved in the restitution of Jewish property for two years now.

German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters praised Gurlitt for agreeing to the research and restitution work, though Gurlitt himself told German paper Der Spiegel he was "giving nothing back willingly."

"He will be rightly recognized and respected for taking this step," Gruetters said in a statement.

Gurlitt, born in 1933, was the son of Nazi art collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. For years, he remained anonymous, but in early 2012, the German authorities raided his apartment in Munich and confiscated some 1,300 works by some of the world’s most famous artists, including Picasso, Monet, Chagall, Matisse and Max Liebermann, worth about a billion euros altogether. A special committee comprised of art experts, representatives of the German government and representatives of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany was later appointed to examine the works’ provenance, due to suspicions that several hundred of them were confiscated from Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

Last month, after lengthy negotiations, Gurlitt and the German government signed an agreement stipulating that the provenance checks would be completed in about a year, and any works discovered to have been stolen would be returned to the owners’ heirs, while any found to belong to Gurlitt legally would be returned to him immediately. But this agreement didn’t include a second collection owned by Gurlitt that contained some 240 additional works. That collection was stored at his house in Salzburg, Austria, and nothing is known of its condition.

Gurlitt was a loner who never married or had children. In interviews with the German media, he described his art collection as his entire life.

“There’s nothing I’ve loved more in my life than my pictures ... The separation from my pictures was the hardest thing of all,” he said. “There are people who are still climbing mountains at age 97, but I don’t want to attain that age. If they had at least waited until I died before taking the pictures...

“What do they want from me?” he continued. “I’m not a murderer; why are they persecuting me? ... I’m just a quiet man. All I wanted was to live with my pictures.” 

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