German collector accused of owning Nazi-looted art dies

Publié le par The Guardian by Philip Oltermann in Berlin

German collector accused of owning Nazi-looted art dies

Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, dies amid dispute over thousands of masterpieces, including work by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse.

German collector accused of owning Nazi-looted art dies

Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive art collector who kept thousands of masterpieces in his Munich flat, has died at the age of 81, opening a new legal can of worms over the future of his collection, some of which is suspected of having been looted by the Nazis.

Gurlitt, whose collection of modernist works caused an international sensation when its discovery was made public last November, died in his flat on Tuesday afternoon. After a heart bypass operation earlier this year, Gurlitt had spent the last few weeks at home in Schwabing district, where he had been receiving around-the-clock medical care. According to the newspaper Bild, he died of an under-supply of oxygen after complications with his cardiac valves.

Gurlitt inherited the art collection from his father, Hildebrand, who was commissioned to obtain artworks on behalf of Adolf Hitler and bought works confiscated from Jewish familes.

As Gurlitt never married or had children, it remains unclear who will inherit the collection, which contains works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Gurlitt's sister, Benita, died in 2012, but is survived by her husband, Nikolaus Fräßle.

Gurlitt's spokesperson, Stephan Holzinger, said in a tweet that it would be up to a probate court to decide if the collector had left behind a valid will or testamentary contract – a surprising statement considering Gurlitt's lawyers had been aware of his illness and might have been expected to help him prepare for his death.

According to Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, Gurlitt was visited in hospital by a notary in February or March to draw up a will. "It is highly unlikely that he wanted to pass on the pictures to a relative," the newspaper said, speculating that a trust may be created to look after the art.

A spokesperson for the culture ministry said the government was unaware of the existence of a will, but that it was conceivable. Lawyers representing potential claimants of individual works will hope Gurlitt has bequeathed the art to the state of Bavaria, which may be more willing to listen to restitution claims than private individuals.

Sabine Rudolph, a restitution lawyer representing the descendants of the Dresden art collector Fritz Salo Glaser, much of whose collection is thought to have ended up with Gurlitt, said: "It's tragic that Gurlitt's life had to end with so many open questions".

In 2012, investigators seized 1,280 works from Gurlitt's flat, after investigating him for tax evasion in relation to them. A second stash of 60 artworks, including pieces by Monet and Renoir, was seized from Gurlitt's house in Salzburg in February this year.

After intense negotiations, Gurlitt's lawyers agreed last month to a deal with the German government under which the works would be returned to the collector, while allowing a taskforce to examine them for another year to establish the identity of their rightful owners.

The pictures from the Munich haul currently remain stored in a secret location. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in November, Gurlitt had said: "I have loved nothing more in my life than my pictures". He died without seeing the collection again.Gurlitt's lawyers and the Bavarian state prosecutors confirmed on Tuesday that the collector's death would officially end the investigation into his tax affairs.

Germany's culture minister, Monika Grütters, praised Gurlitt's decision to collaborate with the authorities, saying it deserved recognition and respect. "It will remain to Cornelius Gurlitt's credit that he … sent an exemplary signal for the search for fair and just solutions with this avowal of moral responsibility."

Publié dans Articles de Presse

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