Cornelius Gurlitt (art collector)

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Cornelius Gurlitt
Born(1932-12-28)28 December 1932
Hamburg, Germany
Died(2014-05-06)6 May 2014
Munich, Germany
OccupationArt collector

Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt (28 December 1932 – 6 May 2014), grandson and great-nephew of his namesakes Cornelius Gurlitt (art historian) and Cornelius Gurlitt (composer), respectively, was a German art collector, notable for inheriting a significant art collection from his art dealer father Hildebrand Gurlitt, comprising works passed down through the Gurlitt family together with items Hildebrand had purchased and retained through his dealing career, a subset of which was believed to include looted art from the Nazi era. The collection was confiscated by German tax authorities in 2012 on dubious grounds but eventually agreed to be returned to Gurlitt's possession in 2014, although this never happened in his lifetime. After the collection came to public attention in 2013, Gurlitt agreed that any items which could be identified as looted should be returned to surviving relatives of the persons from whom the items were originally stolen. On his deathbed he bequeathed all his property, including the art collection, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland, which agreed to accept them minus any items of suspect provenance, which remain in Germany pending further investigation.


Early life[edit]

Gurlitt's parents were the art dealer and previous museum director Hildebrand Gurlitt and Helene Gurlett, née Hanke. He grew up in the Dammtor district of Hamburg with his sister Renate (later known as Benita), who was born there in 1935. After attending primary school in Hamburg, he went to secondary school in Dresden until the city was destroyed by allied bombing in 1945, when Gurlitt was 13. The family moved to rural Aschbach, then in 1946 Gurlitt and his sister were sent to the private Odenwaldschule at Heppenheim for a short period until he joined his family again, now settled in Düsseldorf, where he took his school leaving examination in 1953 at the age of 20.[1]

Death of Gurlitt's father and aftermath[edit]

Three years later, while Gurlitt was enrolled at Cologne University studying art history, his father Hildebrand was killed in a road accident, leaving to his wife Helene the custodianship of his extensive and valuable, but generally little known, private art collection. In 1961, Helene bought two small apartments in the Schwabing suburb of Munich, while Gurlitt moved to Austria, building himself a small house in Aigen, a relatively affluent suburb of Salzburg. His mother died in January 1968, after which time Gurlitt divided his time between one of the two fifth floor Munich apartments (which his sister had inherited) and his Salzburg house; he never married and lived alone for the next four decades, surrounded by the art collection he had inherited upon his mother's death. He lived modestly, drove an inexpensive Volkswagen car, and was a virtual recluse, maintaining as little contact with the outside world as possible, with the exception of regular visits from his sister Benita. In addition to possessing a German passport, he had taken out Austrian citizenship and was registered in that country for tax purposes. However, by the 2000s, his Salzburg house was becoming neglected and Gurlitt, whose health was failing, visited it less frequently, spending more of his time residing in the Munich apartment.[2] Since he had never had any other source of income, after exhaustion of any other money inherited from his mother, Gurlitt appears to have lived by selling the occasional painting from his father's collection, the proceeds being paid into an account in Zurich, Switzerland, to which Gurlitt would travel every four to six weeks and withdraw €9,000 to pay his living costs.[3] The existence, quality and extent of the collection that he had inherited remained largely secret, unknown to his acquaintances and the public at large although according to one dealer was "common knowledge among dealers in southern Germany".[4]

Artworks discovery[edit]

In September 2010 Gurlitt, then aged 77, was stopped on a train returning from Zurich to Munich and found to have €9,000 in his possession which he said came from selling some paintings he had had in his possession in 1978. The amount was below the legally allowed limit to be carried between countries in cash but aroused the suspicion of authorities that he might be involved in some sort of art fraud selling stolen artworks on the black market, on which he was paying no tax in Germany. German customs officials obtained a warrant to search his sister's Munich apartment where he was living and discovered 1,406 works of art initially reported as worth €1 billion (this figure was subsequently revised downwards to some tens of millions of euros, still a substantial sum). The collection included works by Renoir, Matisse, Otto Dix and many other famous artists. These works were all confiscated by officials of the Augsburg Prosecutor's office although the legality of that action was later challenged in court.[5] Gurlitt had no lawyer at the time, and his repeated requests for the collection to be returned to him on the basis that he had committed no crime went unheeded. The Augsburg Prosecutor's investigation, meanwhile, proceeded very slowly and out of public sight until the find was leaked to the press and sensationally reported by the German magazine Focuson 3 November 2013.[6] News of the discovery was reported worldwide.[7]

In December 2013 a local court in Munich appointed a German lawyer, Christoph Edel, to look after Gurlitt's affairs for the next six months, under a scheme which provides legal representation for old or infirm clients. Edel filed lawsuits first against unidentified officials who had leaked information on the discovery to the press, then on the Prosecutor's office for return of the collection, which, however, Gurlitt was never to see again. Gurlitt also revealed to Edel the existence of a second portion of the collection at his Salzburg house, which Edel took steps to secure and remove to a new location on Gurlitt's behalf; these items, more than 250 pieces including works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Liebermann, Toulouse-Lautrec, Courbet, Cézanne, Munch and Manet, were never touched by the German authorities.[8]

Initially, Gurlitt maintained that all of the works in his collection had been acquired legally by his father and that no suggestions that the collection contained looted art would be entertained. However, he subsequently agreed in 2014 that if indeed the collection did include looted items, he would return these to the rightful heirs of the families from which they had been stolen, thereby conforming to the (non binding) 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, although he was under no legal obligation to do so: under German law, any claims to restitution of looted art would have expired after a 30 year period, long expired by 2010 and thereafter[9] Already in 2011, he had consigned one picture, Max Beckmann's "The Lion Tamer", for sale to the Cologne auction house Lempertz, where it was recognized by Mike Hulton, heir to a Jewish family from which the work had originally been stolen prior to Wold War II, although there was no suggestion that Hildebrand Gurlitt had any involvement in the original theft. Representatives of the gallery met with Cornelius and then negotiated an amicable settlement with Hulton to share the profits of the sale, the picture eventually selling for €864,000.[10]

Death and subsequent events[edit]

Gurlitt died on 6 May 2014 at the age of 81. The will he wrote on his deathbed unexpectedly named a small museum in Switzerland, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern (German: Kuntsmuseum Bern), as his "sole heir". People close to Gurlitt told an American newspaper that he decided to give the collection to a foreign institution because he felt that Germany had treated him and his father badly.[11] The legacy included the paintings Gurlitt had kept in Salzburg, paintings which German authorities had not confiscated because their remit did not extend to property held in Austria. Gurlitt's decision created further controversy over the appropriateness of the museum accepting this bequest. The will stipulated that the museum would be required to research the provenance of the paintings and make restitution as appropriate.[12] The museum decided to accept those works which are not legally the property of previous Nazi-era owners, or their heirs, and has entered into a joint agreement with German and Swiss authorities about the handling of this bequest. The will was challenged by one of Gurlitt's cousins based on Gurlitt's supposed state of mind at the time of his death, but the challenge was defeated in court and the Bern bequest permitted to stand.

Some of the artworks have been returned to the heirs of the legitimate owners, notably a portrait by Matisse restored to the heirs of French art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Another major painting from the collection, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), by Max Liebermann, was returned to the heirs of the German-Jewish industrialist and art collector David Friedmann,[13] and sold at auction in June 2015.[14] By late 2014, Carl Spitzweg's "Musical Pair" had also been identified for return to the relevant heir of the original owner.[15]


  1. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 132-136.
  2. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 147-149.
  3. ^ Hickley, Catherine. "Gurlitt's Swiss dealer breaks silence on his client". SWI Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  4. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 150.
  5. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 188.
  6. ^ "Fahnder entdecken 1500 Werke von Picasso, Chagall und weiteren Künstlern". Focus. 3 November 2013. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  7. ^ Smale, Alison (4 November 2013). "Report of Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an Uproar". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
  8. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 186-192
  9. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 192.
  10. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 153-154.
  11. ^ Lane, Mary M. (November 20, 2014). "Swiss Museum Close to Accepting Trove of Nazi Art". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
  12. ^ Lane, p. A12.
  13. ^ Eddy, Melissa (May 15, 2015). "Matisse From Gurlitt Collection Is Returned to Jewish Art Dealer’s Heirs". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-12-19.
  14. ^ Holmes, Ruth (June 24, 2015). "Nazi-looted painting from Munich fetches close to $3m". Times of Israel. Retrieved 2016-12-19.
  15. ^ "Gurlitt's heavy legacy goes to Swiss museum" (November 24, 1014).