BERLIN – The recluse German collector who kept a priceless trove of art, possibly including works stolen by the Nazis, hidden for half a century says he did so because he “loved” them and he wants them back.
Cornelius Gurlitt told German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview published Sunday that he wanted to protect the collection built up by his late father, Hildebrand, an art dealer commissioned by the Nazis to sell works that Adolf Hitler’s regime wanted to get rid of. Bavarian authorities say they suspect the elder Gurlitt may have acquired pictures taken from Jews by the Nazis — and that this may lead to restitution claims by the original owners or their heirs.
In his first extensive interview since the case broke two weeks ago, Gurlitt told Der Spiegel that everybody needs something to love. “And I loved nothing more in life than my pictures,” the magazine quoted him as saying.
The death of his parents and sister were less painful to him than the loss of the 1,406 paintings, prints and drawings by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse and Max Liebermann that authorities hauled out of his apartment last year, he told the magazine.
Der Spiegel said a reporter spent several days interviewing the collector while he travelled from his home in Munich to visit a doctor in another city last week.
Officials are investigating whether Gurlitt may have “misappropriated” the pictures or committed tax offenses in connection with them. However, a spokesman for Augsburg prosecutors, who are handling the case, told AP last week that Germany’s 30-year statute of limitations may prove to be a stumbling block.
Hildebrand Gurlitt died in 1956, and his wife, Helene, died in 1967. Officials were unaware of their son’s huge collection until a chance customs check three years ago led them to the Munich apartment.
Authorities in Bavaria and Berlin kept the find secret for more than a year and a half. But since the German magazine Focus two weeks ago revealed the trove existed, they have come under pressure to find a solution that will prevent legal obstacles from standing in the way of rightful claims to the art — particularly if Holocaust survivors or heirs of those persecuted by the Nazis are involved.
Gurlitt told Der Spiegel that he won’t just hand over the art. “I won’t talk to them, and I’m not giving anything back voluntarily, no, no,” he is quoted as saying.
He told the magazine he kept his favorite pictures in a small suitcase. Each evening he would unpack it to admire them. The magazine said he also spoke to the pictures.
The magazine described Gurlitt as being in ill health because of a heart condition, yet fiercely denying any wrongdoing by himself or his father, whose own Jewish heritage put him in a precarious position when dealing with the Nazis.
Occasionally he sold pictures for cash, the magazine reported. The last time was in 2011, when he sold Max Beckmann’s painting “The Lion Tamer” for €725,000. Gurlitt kept a little over €400,000, with the rest going to the family of a Jewish collector who once owned it, according to the magazine.
The heirs of several Jewish collectors have already come forward to claim some of the 1,406 works that have now come to light, saying the pictures were taken from their relatives by force, or sold under duress.
“It’s possible that my father was once offered something from a private collection,” Gurlitt told Der Spiegel. “But he would definitely not have taken it.”
Gurlitt told the magazine that he helped his father spirit the pictures away from Dresden as the Russian army advanced on the city in 1945.