Cornelius Gurlitt has died (but leaves a lot of art behind)

The apartment block in Munich where 1500 works were discovered in 2011
The apartment block in Munich where 1500 works were discovered in 2011

Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old German man who gained prominence in the fall because he was revealed to have a massive amount of artwork has passed away after a heart procedure.


The Financial Times reports:

Several claims have been lodged on behalf of the descendants of people whose works were allegedly stolen under the Nazis. Among them are the heirs of David Friedmann, a German Jewish businessman, who have laid claim to the Max Liebermann painting “Two Riders on the Beach”. August Matteis, the US lawyer in the Friedmann case, said Mr Gurlitt “never had a role in the claim” because the painting clearly belonged to Mr Friedmann’s heirs.His death removed the tax investigation as a cause of delay because any tax owed to the authorities could be covered by the sale of Mr Gurlitt’s other works. “There must be no more paralysis for the sake of delay,” said Mr Matteis.

The NYT reports on the reaction by German officials:

Monika Grütters, who oversees cultural affairs for Germany’s federal government, issued a statement on Tuesday lauding Mr. Gurlitt for allowing the investigation of his collection. “As a private person, he set an example in his commitment to moral responsibility in seeking out fair and just solutions,” the statement said. “For this step, he was rightly accorded recognition and respect.” The German authorities have held the trove at an undisclosed location, citing security reasons for the secrecy. In February, an additional 238 works — some of them said to be top-quality paintings — were removed from Mr. Gurlitt’s second home, in Salzburg, Austria, and relocated also to an unnamed location. Mr. Gurlitt was last known to have sold a painting in December 2011, when the “Lion Tamer” by Beckmann fetched 864,000 euros, or $1.17 million, at an auction in Cologne, Germany. The auction house, Lempertz, said it brokered an agreement for some of the money to go to heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to leave Germany and died a poor man in London in 1937. Although reporters from around the world camped outside his Munich apartment for weeks after his art collection was revealed, Mr. Gurlitt gave only one interview, to the news weekly Der Spiegel. In that conversation, he revealed little about his life, saying that the only thing he had loved were his pictures.

The question now is what becomes of Gurlitt’s estate, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Although that investigation will lapse now that Mr. Gurlitt is dead, fresh hurdles abound, mainly surrounding a simple question: who has inherited Mr. Gurlitt’s estate? Christopher Marinello, a lawyer for the Rosenberg heirs, says the family will continue pursuing the case, but that “we’ll have to wait for the estate process to run its course.” It is unclear, though, whom Mr. Marinello should even contact or who will be handling the estate process.

Given Mr. Gurlitt’s perpetually frail state of health, a German court appointed Munich-based lawyer Christoph Edel as his legal guardian late last year. But Mr. Edel’s position was “voided as soon as Mr. Gurlitt died,” his spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Holzinger says he doesn’t even know if Mr. Gurlitt has a will and that his own contract will only continue for “the next few days.”

Melissa Eddy & Alison Smale, Cornelius Gurlitt, Scrutinized Son of Nazi-Era Art Dealer, Is Dead at 81, The New York Times, May 6, 2014.
Mary M. Lane, German Art Collector in Nazi Loot Uproar Dies, Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2014.
Stefan Wagstyl, Cornelius Gurlitt, Son of Nazi Era Art Dealer, Dies, Financial Times, May 6, 2014.

5 thoughts on “Cornelius Gurlitt has died (but leaves a lot of art behind)”

  1. Does it really matter? The jackals will feed and the earth will be cleansed. The art will endure beyond the mortality of its “stewards”. How many lost ancient works do we still admire? Many. How many custodians can we name for any enduring work of art? Few. The battle for “stewardship” is not about justice but about power and control—and always has been. Probably always will be—sad to say. Isn’t that precisely what cultural property nationalism is all about? Who is the thief, the Gurlitt’s of the world or those who claim to represent the greater good as they sequester all that man has ever created? I think both.

  2. Artnet referred to Cornelius Gurlitt as a “looter” in its byline!…a gossipy bit of a stretch given Gurlitt was probably not yet in his teens when his father was involved in Nazi art looting. He may have greedily hoarded and deceived himself – he may have acted badly – but he did not loot. I agree with Mr Sayles – Gurlitt died without heirs, and despite the terrors and the sufferings of the Jews forced to relinquish them, these works of art have, in this bizarre fashion, remained intact.

    And this on the same page as a flash ad from Ariadne Galleries!!

    www. chasing

    The hypocrisy of the international art market is truly breathtaking.

  3. Both excellent points. Though some or all of these works might have very good claims against them, labelling this man a criminal or looter without sufficient facts is very troubling. Property rights are a core human right, both for claimants, but also art owners.

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