• Germany edition
 
German of the Week
Who is the recluse behind the Nazi art haul?
Gurlitt was spotted leaving his Munich home apparently on the way to the airport, Bild newspaper reported.

Who is the recluse behind the Nazi art haul?

Published: 14 Nov 2013 15:44 GMT+01:00
Updated: 14 Nov 2013 15:44 GMT+01:00

Gurlitt comes from a family of art-lovers, but his father, who collected paintings on behalf of the Nazis, was declared a "second degree hybrid" by the Third Reich for having a paternal Jewish grandmother.

Cornelius lived alone, dressed well and kept to himself, according to German media reports.

He spent most of his time in his modest apartment in the well-to-do Schwabing area of Munich surrounded by hundreds of legendary works of art acquired by his art dealer father in the 1930s and 1940s.

Gurlitt did not work, marry or have children and apparently sustained himself by occasionally selling a painting. His life continued like this for many years.

Even his family did not have much contact with him and for a time he was only in contact with his late sister Benita through letters, according to Der Spiegel.

CLICK HERE to view some of the paintings

His brother-in-law Nikolaus Frässlehanded in 22 artworks from his flat near Stuttgart to police on Saturday.

Gurlitt, who was last seen getting into a taxi outside his apartment on Tuesday, has left few traces behind.

What is known, according to Der Spiegel, is that he and Benita attended Odenwaldschule, a private boarding school in rural southern Germany between 1946 and 1948.

Afterwards, Gurlitt apparently took a course in art restoration. There are no reports of his movements in the years that followed.

In 1960 however, he acquired a small house in Salzburg and two years later his sister described him in a letter as living the life of solitary painter "happy and contented in Salzburg."  

That 90 square-metre house has since become the focus of media scrutiny amid speculation that yet more paintings may have been stashed there.

Freelance journalist Josie le Blond, who visited the Salzburg home, said: "The house was boarded up and partially derelict, it didn't look like anyone had been living there in decades.

“The garden was overgrown and the neighbours had barely ever seen Gurlitt, maybe just once or twice over the years.

“Given the sheer size of the hoard found in Gurlitt's flat in Munich, I'd be very surprised if he wasn't also using this house as a storage depot for more lost masterpieces."

A family of art-lovers

Art was in Gurlitt's blood. Research by journalists at Der Spiegel revealed that his paternal grandfather was a professor of art history at Dresden University, his uncle was a music academic and his first cousin once removed ran an Avantgarde gallery in Berlin.

But his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, from whom Cornelius inherited the treasures, was the family member who most distinguished himself in the world of art.

Born in Dresden at the end of the nineteenth century, he fought in the First World War, during which time he developed a friendship with the painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

In the years that followed, he studied art history and in 1925 he became director of the König Albert museum in Zwickau, notably showcasing the work of expressionist painters and organizing events attended by Russian avant-garde artist Wassily Kandinksy.

But the Nazis considered avant-garde art "degenerate." Gurlitt's  progressive tastes got him sacked in 1930, much to the approval of the Militant League for German Culture,  an anti-Semitic political group which lauded his dismissal as a triumph over the "culture of the sub-humanity of Kollwitz, Zille and Barlach."

He moved to Hamburg where he became head of the Kunstverein art society, an institution he led according to his own principles rather than Nazi ideologies.

But writing in the Hamburger Tageblatt newspaper, a man named Dr Wall accused him of the "Jewification of the art establishment." In 1933, he was dismissed once again on Nazi orders. In the same year, his son Cornelius was born.

"Second-degree hybrid"

Despite initially being persecuted by the Nazis, who labeled him as a "second-degree hybrid" because of his Jewish connections, for the next decade Gurlitt managed to maintain a high-profile in the art world.

Then, in a rather extraordinary move, he was asked in 1943 to take responsibility for creating an art collection for none other than Adolf Hitler. It was in this capacity that he gathered the vast collection of art which fell into the hands of his reclusive son after his death in a car crash.

Attracting attention

For decades, Cornelius Gurlitt managed to house his father's enormous and priceless art collection without attracting attention. But the first sign that his quiet life might soon come to an end was in 2010, when he was stopped by customs officials while travelling on a train from Zürich to Munich.

Gurlitt was caught carrying €9,000 which he claimed came from the sale of a painting to Swiss gallery owner Bernhard Kornfeld. But according to Der Spiegel, Kornfeld claims he last saw Gurlitt more than twenty years ago.

In 2011, the pensioner came to attention again when the Cologne-based Lempertz auction house put a painting by Max Beckmann up for sale on Gurlitt's behalf.

It was sold for €725,000, with the pensioner receiving 60 percent of the sale. The rest went to the family of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who ran a gallery dedicated to the painter in the 1920's.

The same year, authorities began investigating Gurlitt on charges of tax fraud and it was then that the decision was taken to carry out a search of his flat.

The flat was filled with rubbish, empty food tins and stuffy rooms, according to a witness quoted by AFP.   "It was clear he was a pack rat - there were 50 bags from Ludwig Beck [a department store]. The blinds were pulled down and the only window bringing in light was in the kitchen," she said.

"It was an apartment furnished normally with a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom and a third room," the woman said. The paintings were apparently stored on hand-built shelves behind a curtain in the third room.

Where now?

Even since the remarkable find became public, sightings of Cornelius Gurlitt have been few and far between. Paris Match magazine snapped photographs of him buying bread at his local supermarket and on Tuesday he was reportedly seen heading to the airport.

The only communication to come from Cornelius Gurlitt in recent days was a typewritten letter to Der Spiegel magazine on November 4th which contained the explicit plea not to mention the name Gurlitt in the publication.

The octogenarian recluse had apparently confused the publication with its rival Focus, which broke the story.

Meanwhile the origin of the paintings are being investigated by a taskforce based in Augsburg. Gurlitt says he has handed all the paintings to prosecutors and has said he will give a written statement about his involvement in the controversy as the probe continues. 

Editor's Note: The Local's German of the Week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as German of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

For more stories about Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Kate Ferguson (news@thelocal.de)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Berlin to open memorial to Nazis' disabled victims
Auschwitz. Photo: DPA

Berlin to open memorial to Nazis' disabled victims

Benjamin Traub, a sad-eyed German boy born in 1914, was considered a bright child by his parents and called gifted by his teachers. His life would end in a Nazi gas chamber. READ  

Anti-euro party to debut in state parliament
AfD leader Bernd Lucke celebrates his party's EU election results. Photo: DPA

Anti-euro party to debut in state parliament

Germany's fledgling anti-euro party looks set to win its first seats in a state parliament on Sunday, gaining a political foothold in opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel's grip on power. READ  

Stakes rise in Oracle-SAP copyright fight
Photo: DPA

Stakes rise in Oracle-SAP copyright fight

US appeals court on Friday ruled that Oracle be given a choice between $356.7 million or a new trial for its copyright lawsuit against German rival SAP. READ  

Court rules against child porn suspect Edathy
Former SPD MP Sebastian Edathy photographed at a press conference in February. Photo: DPA

Court rules against child porn suspect Edathy

The Constitutional Court on Friday rejected an attempt by former Social Democratic (SPD) MP Sebastian Edathy to have evidence against him thrown out in his trial for possession of child pornography. READ  

Student busted in case of misdelivered hash
Photo: DPA

Student busted in case of misdelivered hash

A Bavarian student expecting a cannabis delivery was collared by "Commissioner Fluke" after acting surprised in front of policemen when he saw his letter box was empty. READ  

Security fears block Germany-Israel match
German and Israeli fans cheer in the stands during a friendly in Leipzig in 2012. Photo: DPA

Security fears block Germany-Israel match

A friendly soccer match against Israel marking 50 years of diplomatic ties has been called off amid security concerns and the escalation of the Middle East conflict, the German Football Federation (DFB) said on Friday. READ  

Germany's brain drain is Europe's gain
Inside the terminal at the Frankfurt International Airport. Photo: Shutterstock

Germany's brain drain is Europe's gain

Figures from the European Union show that while many German professionals are able to find work abroad with their well-recognised qualifications, Germany doesn't always extend the same courtesy to foreigners. READ  

S-Bahn arson in support of refugees, group claims
Passengers at Berlin's Ostkreuz station yesterday as information screens relay news of the disruption. Photo: DPA

S-Bahn arson in support of refugees, group claims

A radical left-wing group claimed responsibility on Friday for an arson attack that cut power to several S-Bahn lines and caused transport chaos in Berlin, saying it was intended to awaken people to the plight of refugees. READ  

Pilots' strike over, but disruption continues
Passengers in Hannover check departure boards showing cancelled Germanwings flights. Photo: DPA

Pilots' strike over, but disruption continues

UPDATE: Germanwings pilots have ended their six-hour strike which grounded 116 flights and up to 15,000 passengers of Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings on Friday. READ  

Man narrowly escapes unwelcome drop-in
Emergency services use a crane to lift the fallen crane in Cologne. Photo: DPA

Man narrowly escapes unwelcome drop-in

A Cologne resident was pinned to his bed after a 40-metre construction crane toppled onto his home early on Friday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten of the oddest things found by German border control
Photo: Gerkan, Marg and Partners/Tegel Projekt GmbH/J. Mayer
Berlin
How will Berlin look in five years' time?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Sprechen Sie Deutsch? 10 reasons why you should
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The best of Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit in 14 pictures
Photo: DPA
Politics
Germany sends burgers and sausages to Kurds
Photo: Matthias Kock
National
Tribes, ties and a movie: A German's Afghan life
Photo: DPA
Gallery
10 things to do before summer in Germany is really over
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The mysteries of Berlin's abandoned theme park
Photo: Europeana.de 1914 - 1918
Gallery
A German soldier's life behind WWI lines
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,440
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd