The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove



Historic Police Raid

In February 2012, German authorities raided the apartment of 75-year-old collector Cornelius Gurlitt and seized 1,406 works of art, a spectacular trove with a value that has yet to be estimated. It includes works by Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. There were also many prints and graphic works, which Gurlitt had kept in a cabinet.

At the press conference, it was not clear what exactly the collector was being accused of. There is talk of tax evasion and embezzlement, but the legal framework for the authorities’ confiscation of the collection seems murky at best.

Gurlitt has been missing since the raid on his apartment. He inherited the massive, mysterious collection from his father, Hildebrand, an art historian, museum director and art dealer born in 1895. He was one of the men who helped establish modern art in Germany and who collaborated with the Nazis after 1933.

Cornelius was 23 when his father died in 1956. Relatives say the younger Gurlitt has never held a real job. He is a loner, they say, a man with no women in his life, who seeks beauty in art and avoids people. For a time, his only contact with his sister Benita, who died in 2012, was through letters.

Members of the family knew about the pictures he owned, but they saw nothing unusual about the son of a gallery owner inheriting artworks. They saw him occasionally, but not for many years. A relative says that the collection was Cornelius Gurlitt’s lifeblood. “What that little man from Schwabing had in his apartment shouldn’t go to any museum in the world,” the relative explains. They speak of him as if he were a phantom, someone taking revenge on mankind who doesn’t want to share his treasures with others — a man whose spectacular inheritance was both a blessing and a curse.

At the Augsburg press conference, too, Gurlitt remained a phantom. One of the officials said he wasn’t interested in the old man’s whereabouts. At times, it almost seems as if the officials would prefer to see Gurlitt disappear completely. That would make things a lot simpler.

Because it is a complicated story, over which hang the shadows of a horrific century in Germany.