The son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, art collector for the Nazis has died. Cornelius Gurlitt was discovered in 2012 to be hoarding over 1,400 works of art dating from the Nazi era. He died on Tuesday at the age of 81, leaving the entire of his hoarded collection to the Swiss museum, Kunstmuseum Bern. The museum has denied having any prior connections to the deceased.
Cornelius Gurlitt hit the international scene recently after Bavarian customs officials caught him with a large sum of money. The paper trail from the cash led to the discovery of a vast collection of art that had been supporting Gurlitt’s lifestyle for years. He sold a painting only when he needed the money, but he used them to support himself. There was outrage amongst modern art collectors as it was revealed that some of the paintings were kept in a shocking state. It was also made known that there were several pieces thought to have vanished during the war. Gurlitt owned a number of works by Matisse, Picasso and Renoir.
Reportedly, the collection came from works that the elder Gurlitt. Hildebrand, had been asked by the Nazis to collect, steal or buy at low prices from fleeing families during the second World War. Although Cornelius claimed they were all purchased legally, it has been revealed that around 500 of them came from strong-arming Jewish families.
Hildebrand Gurlitt had been told to sell the artworks even though Adolf Hitler was said to have hated them. They were seen as examples of modern art, which was thought to be greatly inferior to the works of the old Masters. Cornelius’ father was tasked with acquiring and selling the often stolen art to foreign nationals in order to keep funds going for the Third Reich. However, it appears that he secretly hoarded some of them and these were passed down to his son. After the news that the works were going to a Swiss museum, German authorities are said to be angry as they wanted the paintings to stay on their own turf.
Gurlitt’s son was known to have a heart condition for which he underwent surgery not long before his death. He recently discovered that he was allowed to keep several hundred of the art works, as prosecutors could find no evidence that they had been looted during the war.
Lawyer to Cornelius, Christoph Edel has confirmed in a statement that the recluse had decided to leave his remaining collection to the museum. The museum has described their new acquisitions as a “bolt out of the blue.” They made it very clear that they had not contacted Gurlitt about owning the collection.
Last month, Gurlitt had made a deal with local authorities to see to it that any works obtained by his father illegally were returned to their rightful owners. It was said at the time that he was committed to the return of any such pieces. The director of the task force charged with the job of finding any heirs to the collection, Matthias Henkel, has reportedly stated that the work of finding the lost heirs to the pieces would continue, despite the collector’s death.
As for what happens to the pieces that were rightfully passed from Hildebrand Gurlitt to his son, there are several possibilities. If a will is found that names his sister as a benefactor, then the claims over whether the artwork finds its way to Swiss museum Kunstmuseum Bern, could be overturned. However, it would a shame for such pieces to continue to be kept away in private collections when they could be enjoyed on an international stage. That seems to be a fitting place for a long hoarded art collection that has caused anguish to many in the past.
By Sara Watson