It was the greatest art theft in history: 650,000 works looted from Europe by the Nazis, many of which were never recovered. But last November the world learned that German authorities had found a trove of 1,280 paintings, drawings, and prints worth more than a billion dollars in the Munich apartment of a haunted white-haired recluse. Amid an international uproar, Alex Shoumatoff follows a century-old trail to reveal the crimes—and obsessions—involved.
At about nine P.M. on September 22, 2010, the high-speed train from Zurich to Munich passed the Lindau border, and Bavarian customs officers came aboard for a routine check of passengers. A lot of “black” money—off-the-books cash—is taken back and forth at this crossing by Germans with Swiss bank accounts, and officers are trained to be on the lookout for suspicious travelers.
As reported by the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, while making his way down the aisle, one of the officers came upon a frail, well-dressed, white-haired man traveling alone and asked for his papers. The old man produced an Austrian passport that said he was Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, born in Hamburg in 1932. He reportedly told the officer that the purpose of his trip was for business, at an art gallery in Bern. Gurlitt was behaving so nervously that the officer decided to take him into the bathroom to search him, and he found on his person an envelope containing 9,000 euros ($12,000) in crisp new bills.
Though he had done nothing illegal—amounts under 10,000 euros don’t need to be declared—the old man’s behavior and the money aroused the officer’s suspicion. He gave back Gurlitt’s papers and money and let him return to his seat, but the customs officer flagged Cornelius Gurlitt for further investigation, and this would put into motion the explosive dénouement of a tragic mystery more than a hundred years in the making.
Cornelius Gurlitt was a ghost. He had told the officer that he had an apartment in Munich, although his residence—where he pays taxes—was in Salzburg. But, according to newspaper reports, there was little record of his existence in Munich or anywhere in Germany. The customs and tax investigators, following up on the officer’s recommendation, discovered no state pension, no health insurance, no tax or employment records, no bank accounts—Gurlitt had apparently never had a job—and he wasn’t even listed in the Munich phone book. This was truly an invisible man.
And yet with a little more digging they discovered that he had been living in Schwabing, one of Munich’s nicer neighborhoods, in a million-dollar-plus apartment for half a century. Then there was that name. Gurlitt. To those with knowledge of Germany’s art world during Hitler’s reign, and especially those now in the business of searching for Raubkunst—art looted by the Nazis—the name Gurlitt is significant: Hildebrand Gurlitt was a museum curator who, despite being a second-degree Mischling, a quarter Jewish, according to Nazi law, became one of the Nazis’ approved art dealers. During the Third Reich, he had amassed a large collection of Raubkunst, much of it from Jewish dealers and collectors. The investigators began to wonder: Was there a connection between Hildebrand Gurlitt and Cornelius Gurlitt? Cornelius had mentioned the art gallery on the train. Could he have been living off the quiet sale of artworks?
The investigators became curious as to what was in apartment No. 5 at 1 Artur-Kutscher-Platz. Perhaps they picked up on the rumors in Munich’s art world. “Everyone in the know had heard that Gurlitt had a big collection of looted art,” the husband of a modern-art-gallery owner told me. But they proceeded cautiously. There were strict private-property-rights, invasion-of-privacy, and other legal issues, starting with the fact that Germany has no law preventing an individual or an institution from owning looted art. It took till September 2011, a full year after the incident on the train, for a judge to issue a search warrant for Gurlitt’s apartment, on the grounds of suspected tax evasion and embezzlement. But still, the authorities seemed hesitant to execute it.
Then, three months later, in December 2011, Cornelius sold a painting, a masterpiece by Max Beckmann titled The Lion Tamer, through the Lempertz auction house, in Cologne, for a total of 864,000 euros ($1.17 million). Even more interesting, according to Der Spiegel, the money from the sale was split roughly 60–40 with the heirs of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who had had modern-art galleries in several German cities and Vienna in the 1920s. In 1933, Flechtheim had fled to Paris and then London, leaving behind his collection of art. He died impoverished in 1937. His family has been trying to reclaim the collection, including The Lion Tamer, for years.
As part of his settlement with the Flechtheim estate, according to an attorney for the heirs, Cornelius Gurlitt acknowledged that the Beckmann had been sold under duress by Flechtheim in 1934 to his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt. This bombshell gave traction to the government’s suspicion that there might be more art in Gurlitt’s apartment.
But it took until February 28, 2012, for the warrant to finally be executed. When the police and customs and tax officials entered Gurlitt’s 1,076-square-foot apartment, they found an astonishing trove of 121 framed and 1,285 unframed artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Chagall, Max Liebermann, Otto Dix, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Kirchner, Delacroix, Daumier, and Courbet. There was a Dürer. A Canaletto. The collection could be worth more than a billion dollars.
As reported in Der Spiegel, over a period of three days, Gurlitt was instructed to sit and watch quietly as officials packed the pictures and took them all away. The trove was taken to a federal customs warehouse in Garching, about 10 miles north of Munich. The chief prosecutor’s office made no public announcement of the seizure and kept the whole matter under tight wraps while it debated how to proceed. Once the artworks’ existence became known, all hell was going to break loose. Germany would be besieged by claims and diplomatic pressure. In this unprecedented case, no one seemed to know what to do. It would open old wounds, fault lines in the culture, that hadn’t healed and never will.
In the days that followed, Cornelius sat bereft in his empty apartment. A psychological counselor from a government agency was sent to check up on him. Meanwhile, the collection remained in Garching, with no one the wiser, until word of its existence was leaked to Focus, a German newsweekly, possibly by someone who had been in Cornelius’s apartment, perhaps one of the police or the movers who were there in 2012, because he or she provided a description of its interior. On November 4, 2013—20 months after the seizure and more than three years after Cornelius’s interview on the train—the magazine splashed on its front page the news that what appeared to be the greatest trove of looted Nazi art in 70 years had been found in the apartment of an urban hermit in Munich who had been living with it for decades.
Soon after the Focus story broke, the media converged on No. 1
Artur-Kutscher-Platz, and Cornelius Gurlitt’s life as a recluse was over.
How the collection had ended up in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment is a tragic saga, which begins in 1892 with the publication of the physician and social critic Max Nordau’s book Entartung (Degeneration). In it, he postulated that some of the new art and literature that was appearing in fin de siècle Europe was the product of diseased minds. As examples of this degeneracy, Nordau singled out some of his personal bêtes noires: the Parnassians, the Symbolists, and the followers of Ibsen, Wilde, Tolstoy, and Zola.
The son of a Budapest rabbi, Nordau saw the alarming rise in anti-Semitism as another indication that European society was degenerating, a point that seems to have been lost on Hitler, whose racist ideology was influenced by Nordau’s writings. As Hitler came to power, in 1933, he declared “merciless war” on “cultural disintegration.” He ordered an aesthetic purge of the entartete Künstler, the “degenerate artists,” and their work, which to him included anything that deviated from classic representationalism: not only the new Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism, futurism, and objective realism, but the salon-acceptable Impressionism of van Gogh and Cézanne and Matisse and the dreamy abstracts of Kandinsky. It was all Jewish Bolshevik art. Even though much of it was not actually made by Jews, it was still, to Hitler, subversive-Jewish-Bolshevik in sensibility and intent and corrosive to the moral fiber of Germany. The artists were culturally Judeo-Bolshevik, and the whole modern-art scene was dominated by Jewish dealers, gallery owners, and collectors. So it had to be eliminated to get Germany back on the right track.
Maybe there was an element of revenge in the way Hitler—whose dream of becoming an artist had gone nowhere—destroyed the lives and careers of the successful artists of his day. But all forms were targeted in his aesthetic cleansing campaign. Expressionist and other avant-garde films were banned—sparking an exodus to Hollywood by filmmakers Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and others. “Un-German” books like the works of Kafka, Freud, Marx, and H. G. Wells were burned; jazz and other atonal music was verboten, although this was less rigidly enforced. Writers Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and others went into exile. This creative pogrom helped spawn the Weltanschauung that made the racial one possible.
The Gurlitts were a distinguished family of assimilated German Jews, with generations of artists and people in the arts going back to the early 19th century. Cornelius was actually the third Cornelius, after his composer great-great-uncle and his grandfather, a Baroque-art and architectural historian who wrote nearly 100 books and was the father of his father, Hildebrand. By the time Hitler came to power, Hildebrand had already been fired as the curator and director of two art institutions: an art museum in Zwickau, for “pursuing an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feelings of Germany” by exhibiting some controversial modern artists, and the Kunstverein, in Hamburg, not only for his taste in art but because he had a Jewish grandmother. As Hildebrand wrote in an essay 22 years later, he started to fear for his life. Remaining in Hamburg, he opened a gallery that stuck to older, more traditional and safe art. But he was also quietly acquiring forbidden art at bargain prices from Jews fleeing the country or needing money to pay the devastating capital-flight tax and, later, the Jewish wealth levy.
In 1937, Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, seeing the opportunity “to make some money from this garbage,” created a commission to confiscate degenerate art from both public institutions and private collections. The commission’s work culminated in the “Degenerate Art” show that year, which opened in Munich a day after “The Great German Art Exhibition” of approved “blood and soil” pictures that inaugurated the monumental, new House of German Art, on Prinzregentenstrasse. “What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent,” Adolf Ziegler, the president of the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, in Munich, and curator of the “Degenerate Art” show, said at its opening. The show got two million visitors—an average of 20,000 people a day—and more than four times the number that came to “The Great German Art Exhibition.”
A pamphlet put out by the Ministry for Education and Science in 1937, to coincide with the “Degenerate Art” show, declared, “Dadaism, Futurism, Cubism, and the other isms are the poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, grown on German soil. . . . Examples of these will be the strongest proof for the necessity of a radical solution to the Jewish question.”
A year later, Goebbels formed the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art. Hildebrand, despite his Jewish heritage, was appointed to the four-person commission because of his expertise and art-world contacts outside Germany. It was the commission’s job to sell the degenerate art abroad, which could be used for worthy purposes like acquiring old masters for the huge museum—it was going to be the biggest in the world—the Führer was planning to build in Linz, Austria. Hildebrand was permitted to acquire degenerate works himself, as long as he paid for them in hard foreign currency, an opportunity that he took full advantage of. Over the next few years, he would acquire more than 300 pieces of degenerate art for next to nothing. Hermann Göring, a notorious looter, would end up with 1,500 pieces of Raubkunst—including works by van Gogh, Munch, Gauguin, and Cézanne—valued at about $200 million after the war.
As reported in Der Spiegel, after France fell, in 1940, Hildebrand went frequently to Paris, leaving his wife, Helene, and children—Cornelius, then eight, and his sister, Benita, who was two years younger—in Hamburg and taking up residence in the Hotel de Jersey or at the apartment of a mistress. He began a complicated and dangerous game of survival and self-enrichment in which he played everybody: his wife, the Nazis, the Allies, the Jewish artists, dealers, and owners of the paintings, all in the name of allegedly helping them escape and saving their work. He got involved in all kinds of high-risk, high-reward wheeling and dealing, like the wealthy dealer in Paris buying art from fleeing Jews whom Alain Delon played in the 1976 movie Monsieur Klein.
Hildebrand also entered the abandoned homes of rich Jewish collectors and carted off their pictures. He acquired one masterpiece—Matisse’s Seated Woman (1921)—that Paul Rosenberg, the friend and dealer of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, had left in a bank vault in Libourne, near Bordeaux, before he fled to America, in 1940. Other works Hildebrand picked up at distress sales at the Drouot auction house, in Paris.
With carte blanche from Goebbels, Hildebrand was flying high. He may have agreed to his deal with the Devil because, as he later claimed, he had no choice if he wanted to stay alive, and then he was gradually corrupted by the money and the treasures he was accumulating—a common enough trajectory. But perhaps it is more accurate to say that he was leading a double life: giving the Nazis what they wanted, and doing what he could to save the art he loved and his fellow Jews. Or a triple life, because at the same time he was also amassing a fortune in artworks. It is easy for a modern person to condemn the sellouts in a world that was so inconceivably compromised and horrible.
In 1943, Hildebrand became one of the major buyers for Hitler’s future museum in Linz. The works that were suitable to the Führer’s taste were shipped to Germany. These included not only paintings but tapestries and furniture. Hildebrand got a 5 percent commission on each transaction. A shrewd, inscrutable man, he was always welcome at the table, because he had millions of reichsmarks from Goebbels to spend.
From March 1941 to July 1944, 29 large shipments including 137 freight cars filled with 4,174 crates containing 21,903 art objects of all kinds went to Germany. Altogether, about 100,000 works were looted by the Nazis from Jews in France alone. The total number of works plundered has been estimated at around 650,000. It was the greatest art theft in history.
The day after the Focus story came out, Augsburg’s chief prosecutor, Reinhard Nemetz, who is in charge of the investigation, held a hasty press conference and issued a carefully worded press release, followed by another two weeks later. But the damage was done; the floodgates of outrage were open. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office was inundated with complaints and declined to make a statement about an ongoing investigation. Germany suddenly had an international image crisis on its hands and was looking at major litigation. How could the German government have been so callous as to withhold this information for a year and a half, and to divulge it only when forced to by the Focus story? How outrageous is it that, 70 years after the war, Germany still has no restitution law for art stolen by the Nazis?
There is a lot of interest among the descendants of Holocaust victims in getting back artworks that were looted by the Nazis, for getting at least some form of compensation and closure for the horrors visited upon their families. The problem, explains Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is that “a great many people don’t know what is missing from their collections.”
Cosmetics billionaire and longtime activist for the recovery of looted art Ronald Lauder called for the immediate release of the full inventory of the collection, as did Fisher, Anne Webber, founder and co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, and David Rowland, a New York lawyer representing the descendants of Curt Glaser. Glaser and his wife, Elsa, were major supporters, collectors, and influential cognoscenti of the art of the Weimar period, and friends with Matisse and Kirchner. Under Nazi laws forbidding Jews from holding civil-servant positions, Glaser was pushed out as director of the Prussian State Library in 1933. Forced to disperse his collection, he fled to Switzerland, then Italy, and finally America, where he died in Lake Placid, New York, in 1943. Lauder told me that “the artworks stolen from the Jews are the last prisoners of W.W. II. You have to be aware that every work stolen from a Jew involved at least one death.”
On November 11, the government started to put up some of Cornelius’s works on a Web site (lostart.de), and there were so many visits the site crashed. To date it has posted 458 works and announced that about 590 of the trove of what has been adjusted to 1,280—due to multiples and sets—may have been looted from Jewish owners. The provenance work is far from done.
German restitution laws that apply to looted art are highly complex. In fact, the 1938 Nazi law that allowed the government to confiscate Degenerate Art has still not been repealed. Germany is a signatory to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which say that museums and other public institutions with Raubkunst should return it to its rightful owners, or their heirs. But compliance is voluntary, and few institutions in any of the signatory countries have complied. Even so, the Principles don’t apply to Degenerate Art in Germany, nor do they apply to works possessed by individuals, such as Cornelius. Ronald Lauder told me that “there is a huge amount of looted art in the museums of Germany, most of it not on display.” He called for a commission of international experts to scour Germany’s museums and government institutions, and in February the German government announced that it would set up an independent center to begin looking closely at museums’ collections.
To this date, Cornelius has not been charged with any crime, bringing into question the legality of the seizure—which was probably not covered by the search warrant under which authorities entered his apartment. Furthermore, there is a 30-year statute of limitations on making claims on stolen property, and Cornelius has been in possession of the art for more than 40 years. The pieces are still in a warehouse in a sort of limbo. Numerous parties are making claims to the ones that have been posted on the government’s Web site. It is unclear whether the law requires or enables the government to return the art to its rightful owners, or whether it needs to be returned to Cornelius on the grounds of an illegal seizure or under the protection of the statute of limitations.
“He must not be a happy man, having lived a lie for so many years,” Nana Dix, the granddaughter of the Degenerate artist Otto Dix, said to me about Cornelius. Nana is herself an artist, and we spent three hours in her studio in Schwabing, about half a mile from Cornelius’s apartment, looking at reproductions of her grandfather’s work and tracing his remarkable career—how he had transcendently documented the horrors he had lived through on the front lines of both wars, at one point being forbidden by the Gestapo to paint or even buy art materials. Dix, who came from humble origins (his father worked in an iron foundry in Gera), was one of the great under-recognized artists of the 20th century. Only Picasso expressed himself as masterfully in so many styles: Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Impressionism, abstract, grotesque hyper-realism. Dix’s powerful, searingly honest images reflect—as Hildebrand Gurlitt described the unsettling modern art he collected—“the struggle to come to terms with who we are.” According to Nana Dix, 200 of his major works are still missing.
Within hours of the Focus piece’s publication, the sensational story of Cornelius Gurlitt and his billion-dollar secret hoard of art had been picked up by major media all over the world. Every time he stepped out of his building, microphones were thrust in his face and cameras started to roll. After being mobbed by paparazzi, he spent 10 days in his empty apartment without leaving it. According to Der Spiegel, the last movie he saw was in 1967. He hadn’t watched television since 1963. He did read the paper and listened to the radio, so he had some idea of what was going on in the world, but his actual experience of it was very limited and he was out of touch with a lot of developments. He rarely traveled—he had gone to Paris, once, with his sister years ago. He said he had never been in love with an actual person. The pictures were his whole life. And now they were gone. The grief he had been going through for the last year and a half, alone in his empty apartment, the bereavement, was unimaginable. The loss of his pictures, he told Özlem Gezer, Der Spiegel’s reporter—it was the only interview he would grant—hit him harder than the loss of his parents, or his sister, who died of cancer in 2012. He blamed his mother for bringing them to Munich, the seat of evil, where it all began, with Hitler’s abortive Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. He insisted his father had only associated with Nazis in order to save these precious works of art, and Cornelius felt it was his duty to protect them, just as his father had heroically done. Gradually the artworks became his entire world, a parallel universe full of horror, passion, beauty, and endless fascination, in which he was a spectator. He was like a character in a Russian novel—intense, obsessed, isolated, and increasingly out of touch with reality.
There are a lot of solitary old men in Munich, living in the private world of their memories, dark, horrible memories for those old enough to have lived through the war and the Nazi period. I thought I recognized Cornelius several times, waiting for the bus or nursing a weiss beer alone in a Brauhaus late in the morning, but they were other pale, frail, old white-haired men who looked just like him. Nobody had given Cornelius a second glance, but now he was a celebrity.
After Allied bombers obliterated the center of Dresden, in February 1945, it was clear that the Third Reich was finished. Hildebrand had a Nazi colleague, Baron Gerhard von Pölnitz, who had helped him and another art dealer, Karl Haberstock, put deals together when von Pölnitz was in the Luftwaffe and stationed in Paris. Von Pölnitz invited the two of them to bring their personal collections and take refuge in his picturesque castle in Aschbach, in northern Bavaria.
On April 14, 1945, with Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender only weeks away, Allied troops entered Aschbach. They found Haberstock and his collection and Gurlitt, with 47 crates of “art objects,” in the castle. The “Monuments Men”—approximately 345 men and women with fine-arts expertise who were charged with protecting Europe’s monuments and cultural treasures, and the subject of the George Clooney film—were brought in. Two men, a captain and a private, were assigned to investigate the works in Aschbach Castle. Haberstock was described on the O.S.S.’s red-flag name list as “the leading Nazi art dealer,” “the most prolific German buyer in Paris,” and “regarded in all quarters as the most important German art figure.” He had been involved in the campaign against Degenerate Art from 1933 to 1939 and in 1936 had become Hitler’s personal dealer. Hildebrand Gurlitt was described as “an art dealer from Hamburg with connections within high-level Nazi circles” who was “one of the official agents for Linz” but who, being partly Jewish, had problems with the party and used Theo Hermssen—a well-known figure in the Nazi art world—as a front until Hermssen died in 1944.
Haberstock was taken into custody and his collection was impounded, and Hildebrand was placed under house arrest in the castle, which was not lifted until 1948. His works were taken away for processing. Hildebrand explained that they were legitimately his. Most of them came from his father, an avid collector of modern art, he said. He listed how each of them had come into his possession, and, according to Der Spiegel, falsified the provenance of the ones that were stolen or acquired under duress. For instance, there was a painting by the Bulgarian artist Jules Pascin. Hildebrand claimed that he had inherited it from his father, but he had actually bought it for far less than it was worth in 1935 from Julius Ferdinand Wollf, the Jewish editor of one of Dresden’s major newspapers. (Wollf had been removed from his post in 1933 and would commit suicide with his wife and brother in 1942 as they were about to be shipped to concentration camps.) The detailed documentation for the works, Hildebrand claimed, had been in his house in Dresden, which had been reduced to rubble during the Allied bombing. Fortunately, he and his wife, Helene, had been offered refuge in Aschbach Castle by Baron von Pölnitz and had managed to get out of Dresden with these works just before the bombing. He claimed that the rest of his collection had to be left behind and was also destroyed.
Hildebrand persuaded the Monuments Men that he was a victim of the Nazis. They had fired him from two museums. They called him a “mongrel” because of his Jewish grandmother. He was doing what he could to save these wonderful and important maligned pictures, which would otherwise have been burned by the SS. He assured them he never bought a painting that wasn’t offered voluntarily.
Later in 1945, Baron von Pölnitz was arrested and the Gurlitts were joined by more than 140 emaciated, traumatized survivors of the concentration camps, most of them under 20. Aschbach Castle had been made into a displaced-persons camp.
The Monuments Men eventually returned 165 of Hildebrand’s pieces but kept the rest, which clearly had been stolen, and their investigation of his wartime activities and his art collection was closed. What they didn’t know was that Hildebrand had lied about his collection having been destroyed in Dresden—much of it had actually been hidden in a Franconia water mill and in another secret location, in Saxony.
After the war, with his collection largely intact, Hildebrand moved to Düsseldorf, where he continued to deal in artworks. His reputation sufficiently rehabilitated, he was elected the director of the Kunstverein, the city’s venerable art institution. What he had had to do in the war was becoming more and more a fading memory. In 1956, Hildebrand was killed in a car crash.
In 1960, Helene sold four paintings from her late husband’s collection, one of them a portrait of Bertolt Brecht by Rudolf Schlichter, and bought two apartments in an expensive new building in Munich.
Not much is known about Cornelius’s upbringing. When the Allies came to the castle, Cornelius was 12, and he and his sister, Benita, were soon sent off to boarding school. Cornelius was an extremely sensitive, desperately shy boy. He studied art history at the University of Cologne and took courses in music theory and philosophy, but for unknown reasons he broke off his studies. He seemed content to be alone, a reclusive artist in Salzburg, his sister reported to a friend in 1962. Six years later, their mother died. Since then, Cornelius has divided his time between Salzburg and Munich and appears to have been spending increasing amounts of time in the Schwabing apartment with his pictures. For the last 45 years, he seems to have had almost no contact with anybody, apart from his sister, until her death, two years ago, and his doctor, reportedly in Würzburg, a small city three hours from Munich by train, whom he went to see every three months.
After the artworks were seized, Meike Hoffmann, an art historian with the “Degenerate Art” Research Center at Berlin’s Free University, was brought in to trace their provenance. Hoffmann worked on them for a year and a half and identified 380 that were Degenerate artworks, but she was clearly overwhelmed. An international task force, under the Berlin-based Bureau of Provenance Research and led by the retired deputy to Germany’s commissioner for culture and media, Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, was appointed to take over the task. Berggreen-Merkel said that “transparency and progress are the urgent priorities,” and that the confirmed Raubkunst was being put up on the government’s Lost Art Database Web site as quickly as possible. One of the paintings on the site, the most valuable found in Cornelius’s apartment—with an estimated value of $6 million to $8 million (although some experts estimate it could go for as much as $20 million at auction)—is the Matisse stolen from Paul Rosenberg. The Rosenberg heirs have its bill of sale from 1923 and have filed a claim for it with the chief prosecutor. One of the heirs is Rosenberg’s granddaughter Anne Sinclair, the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a well-known French political commentator who runs Le Huffington Post. In December, the German television show Kulturzeit reported that as many as 30 claims have been made on the same Matisse, which illustrates the problem Ronald Lauder described to me: “When you put them up on the Internet, everybody says, ‘Hey, I remember my uncle had a picture like this.’ ”
Berggreen-Merkel also said the task force, which answers to the chief prosecutor, Nemetz, does not have the mandate to get the artworks back to their original owners or their heirs. There is nothing in German law compelling Cornelius to give them back. Nemetz estimated that 310 of the works were “doubtless the property of the accused” and could be returned to him immediately. The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, responded that the prosecutor should rethink his plans to return any of the works.
In November, Bavaria’s newly appointed justice minister, Winfried Bausback, said, “Everyone involved on the federal and state level should have tackled this challenge with more urgency and resources from the start.” In February, a revision of the statute-of-limitations law, drawn up by Bausback, was presented to the upper house of Parliament. Stuart Eizenstat, Secretary of State John Kerry’s special adviser on Holocaust issues, who drafted the 1998 Washington Principles’ international norms for art restitution, had been pressuring Germany to lift the 30-year statute of limitations. After all, how could anybody have filed claims for Cornelius’s pictures if their existence was unknown?
Hildebrand Gurlitt, spinning his heroic narrative in an unpublished six-page essay he wrote in 1955, a year before his death, said, “These works have meant for me … the best of my life.” He recalled his mother taking him to the Bridge school’s first show, at the turn of the century, a seminal event for Expressionism and modern art, and how “these barbaric, passionately powerful colors, this rawness, enclosed in the poorest of wooden frames” were “like a slap in the face” to the middle class. He wrote that he had come to regard the works that had ended up in his possession “not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward.” Cornelius felt that he had also inherited the duty to protect them, just as his father had from the Nazis, the bombs, and the Americans.
Ten days after the Focus story, Cornelius managed to escape the paparazzi in Munich and took the train for his tri-monthly checkup with his doctor. It was a little expedition, and a welcome change of scenery from his hermetic existence in the apartment, that he always looked forward to, Der Spiegel reported. He left Munich two days before the appointment and returned the day after and had made the hotel reservation months ahead of time, posting the typed request, signed with a fountain pen. Cornelius has a chronic heart condition, which his doctor says has been acting up now more than usual, because of all the excitement.
In late December, just before his 81st birthday, Cornelius was admitted to a clinic in Munich, where he remains. A legal guardian was appointed by the district court of Munich, an intermediate type of guardian who does not have the power to make decisions but is brought in when someone is overwhelmed with understanding and exercising his rights, especially in complex legal matters. Cornelius has hired three lawyers, and a crisis-management public-relations firm to deal with the media. On January 29, two of the lawyers filed a John Doe complaint with the public prosecutor’s office in Munich, against whoever leaked information from the investigation to Focus and thus violated judicial secrecy.
Then, on February 10, Austrian authorities found approximately 60 more pieces, including paintings by Monet, Renoir, and Picasso, in Cornelius’s Salzburg house. According to his new spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, Cornelius asked that they be investigated to determine if any had been stolen, and an initial evaluation suggested that none had. A week later, Holzinger announced the creation of a Web site, gurlitt.info, which included this statement from Cornelius: “Some of what has been reported about my collection and myself is not correct or not quite correct. Consequently my lawyers, my legal caretaker, and I want to make available information to objectify the discussion about my collection and my person.” Holzinger added that the creation of the site was their attempt to “make clear that we are willing to engage in dialogue with the public and any potential claimants,” as Cornelius did with the Flechtheim heirs when he sold The Lion Tamer.
On February 19, Cornelius’s lawyers filed an appeal against the search warrant and seizure order, demanding the reversal of the decision that led to the confiscation of his artworks, because they are not relevant to the charge of tax evasion.
Cornelius’s cousin, Ekkeheart Gurlitt, a photographer in Barcelona, said that Cornelius was “a lone cowboy, a lonely soul, and a tragic figure. He wasn’t in it for the money. If he were, he would have sold the pictures long ago.” He loved them. They were his whole life.
Without admirers like that, art is nothing.