• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Who is the recluse behind the Nazi art haul?

Kate Ferguson · 14 Nov 2013, 15:44

Published: 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.

Story continues below…

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 news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kate Ferguson (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Ethiopia's Bekele nears record as wins Berlin marathon
Participants in the Berlin marathon take to the streets on Sunday. Photo:Paul Zinken/dpa

Kenenisa Bekele narrowly missed out on the world record on Sunday as the Ethiopian won the Berlin marathon ahead of former winner Wilson Kipsang.

Europe needs deals to send migrants home: Merkel
Angela Merkal poses with Bulgaria's Prime minister Boyko Borissov (L) and Austrian chancellor Christian Kern (R) in Vienna. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Europe needs to secure more deals to send rejected migrants home, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told counterparts in Vienna.

Germany sees 'turning point' in birth rate decline
Children at a a kindergarten in Swabia. Photo: Nikolaus Lenau/Flickr

Is Germany's three-decade decline in birth rate now over?

Trump protesters rebuild and tear down 'Berlin Wall'
The 'Stop Trump' protest at the Brandenburg Gate. Photo: DPA.

US expats gathered at the Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate on Friday "rebuild" the Berlin Wall and protest US presidential candidate Donald Trump's own proposed wall-building.

Accusation of sexism within Merkel's party creates uproar
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Chancellor Angela Merkel, two leading women in the CDU party. Photo: DPA.

A young politician from the ranks of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has caused a storm by suggesting that the party is institutionally sexist.

EasyJet 'in talks to buy German airline' to duck Brexit
Photo: DPA

EasyJet is in talks to acquire TUIfly, a board member of the German carrier said Friday, as the British no-frills airline looks for ways to keep flying freely within the EU after Britain quits the bloc.

Symbols of migrant plight to go on show in Bonn museum
Photo: DPA

A people smugglers' car, a dinghy and a life jacket are among items related to Europe's migration crisis due to go on display at a German museum.

Brexit
Green party demand 'quick and easy' citizenship for Brits
Photo: DPA

The Green party has called for Brits living in Germany to be offered a painless path to obtaining dual citizenship as to "reassure them over the future".

Berlin the new London? 10m2 flat to rent for €750 a month
Photo: Immonet.de.

This shoebox apartment in the gentrified Bergmann-Kiez neighbourhood may be a sign that the tides are turning for Berlin’s comparatively cheap housing market.

Far-right AfD reach record high in national poll
AfD leader Frauke Petry. Photo: DPA.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) was backed by 16 percent of respondents in a new poll, which was a new high for the upstart populist party.

Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
National
Seven great reasons to stay in Germany this September
National
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
National
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
National
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
5,753
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd