Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets

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Photo Gallery: Cornelius Gurlitt and His Art Treasures Photos
REUTERS

Cornelius Gurlitt hoarded art treasures his father obtained under dubious circumstances in the Nazi era. The reclusive 80-year-old has given SPIEGEL the first interview since news of their discovery broke two weeks ago. He says the pictures are the love of his life and must be returned.

No one had ever seen Cornelius Gurlitt in his nightshirt before, until a day in February 2012, when they broke the lock and marched in -- the strangers, as he calls them -- the customs investigators and officials with the Augsburg public prosecutor's office.

His apartment was his world. But now these strangers had entered. There were many of them, perhaps 30, and they didn't go away. Instead, they spent four days wrapping up his life in blankets, packing it into cardboard boxes and carrying it away -- well over 1,000 works of art.

Meanwhile, Gurlitt was expected to sit in a corner and remain quiet. He complied with their wishes, watching as they removed Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" from the wall, a work that had hung there for decades, and took the Chagall from the locked wooden cabinet.

They left nothing behind, not even the small suitcase containing his favorite pictures, a collection of works on paper. For decades, Gurlitt had unpacked the drawings each evening to admire them. Now they were gone and Gurlitt was alone.

The only other person who came to see him was a woman from a counseling service who had been sent by the strangers. He uses words like "gruesome" and "horrible" to describe this visit, in which he was expected to talk about his feelings. He assured her that he had no intention of killing himself and asked her to leave.

Since that day, Gurlitt has been alone in his bare apartment, in a white-painted building in Munich, a city he calls a prison. And ever since the German newsweekly Focus uncovered the confiscation of his collection two weeks ago, the world's press has been gathering downstairs, outside the front door of his apartment block. Whenever he leaves the building, he is inundated with camera flashes, as if he were a war criminal. Strangers are constantly knocking on his door and sliding letters through the mail slot.

The works are a sensational treasure trove, including paintings by Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The mysterious collection stems from the estate of his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art critic, museum director and art dealer who died in 1956, one of the men who established modern art in Germany and, after 1933, did business with the Nazis.

One of the issues the discovery raises is whether Hildebrand Gurlitt wrongfully obtained the paintings. At this point no one, from the public prosecutor's office to art experts to politicians, knows how many of the works rightfully belong to the son. Cornelius Gurlitt, who just wants to get away from this place, where he now feels like a hunted person, doesn't know either.

So many pictures, so many mysteries. Is it stolen art? Degenerate art? Who owns them? What brought them to the apartment in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood? And how should authorities handle all the issues related to the discovery? What about the heirs who want the works of art returned to them? And how does one address the injustices committed at the time, or the injustice that could be committed today against Gurlitt, the heir of a collection with dubious origins?

'What Do These People Want From Me?'

He spoke to his paintings. They were his friends, the loyal companions that didn't exist in his real life. He considered it is his life's mission to protect his father's treasure, and over the decades he lost touch with reality.

It is last Tuesday, and Gurlitt is sitting on a German ICE high-speed train, in a compartment designed for people with children. This is the second time he has left his apartment since the revelations in Focus. The first time, he went shopping and was hounded by photographers. After that, he spent 10 days in his near-dark living room and did nothing. He says that he could hardly sleep, and when he did, he was plagued by nightmares. Sometimes he would switch the radio on and then off again. The only thing they had left him was the broken lock to his apartment door.

Gurlitt is traveling to see his doctor in a small southern German city. He is drinking tea from a coffee cup. Occasionally he runs his hand over his white hair. The trip -- a sad journey -- takes three days.

"I'm not Boris Becker," he says. "What do these people want from me? I'm just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures. Why are they photographing me for these newspapers, which normally only feature photos of shady characters?"

Gurlitt doesn't understand why people are so interested in what he calls his personal property. He mentions the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet. His face is pale and there are tears in his blue eyes. He takes a cloth handkerchief from his right coat pocket and blows his nose.

'Fatal Misfortune'

"I simply didn't expect them," he says. He means the strangers. Still, Gurlitt says he also bears some of the blame for this "fatal misfortune," having to say goodbye to his father's legacy. He should have protected it the way his father did, he says, against being burned by the Nazis, against the bombs, against the Russians and against the Americans. For Cornelius Gurlitt, his father was a hero, and he now feels like a failure.

Gurlitt spent a lifetime being a son and an heir, making it his mission to preserve his father's legacy. He says it never occurred to him that the art he kept in his 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) apartment, art that perhaps wasn't entirely his, could be used to help make amends for what the Nazis had done.

"If I had lived somewhere else, all of this simply wouldn't have happened," he says -- somewhere far away from the Swiss border, where customs inspectors noticed him on a train in 2010; and far away from the people of Munich, who he had never really trusted. The current mess is his mother's fault, he says, because she was the one who had wanted to move to Schwabing after his father died.

She had dreamed of a Bohemian lifestyle, and of affluent people who weren't interested in other people's money. Cornelius was 27 at the time, a young man who didn't like making decisions, and unlike his father, he wasn't a man of action, not a leader but someone who liked to be led. He trusted his mother, who bought two apartments on Artur Kutscher Platz. Today, 53 years later, Gurlitt says: "She was wrong."

Munich is the "source of all evil," says Gurlitt. "This is where the movement was founded," he says, referring to Hitler's Nazi movement. He keeps repeating the same sentence, and when he does his quivering voice becomes louder. He lifts his right index finger, holds onto the table on the ICE train with his other hand and raises his eyebrows. Gurlitt talks about the beginnings of the Nazi Party in 1920, and about the speech Adolf Hitler gave in the Munich Hofbräuhaus, in which he announced the party's manifesto. In Gurlitt's opinion, evil still appears to reside in the city.

Gurlitt seems trapped in another time. He stopped watching television when Germany's second public television network was launched, the "new station" with its trademark Mainzelmännchen cartoon characters. That was in 1963. He books his hotel rooms months in advance by post, with letters written on a typewriter and signed with a fountain pen, which include the request to send a taxi to pick him up from the train station. His world is slow and quiet.

'There Is Nothing I Have Loved More'

He is amazed by telephones that display the caller's phone number. He knows that it's possible to search for things on the Internet, but he has never done it. He has spent his life living with his pictures. He lacks interaction with other people, and he has gathered his life experiences from books.

He talks about Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," a short story about an explorer who witnesses condemned prisoners, who don't know what crime they have committed, being tortured and killed on a remote island. He says that the emptying of his apartment was similarly tragic.

The ICE crosses the Munich city line. "Now it's a little quieter," he says. "Finally." He hasn't felt well in the last 10 days. Gurlitt, who turns 81 at the end of December, says that he always dreamed of living until he was 90. "There are people who are still climbing mountains at 97, but I won't live to be that old," he says. "At least they could have waited until I was dead to take away the pictures."

He doesn't understand what people want from him. He says the public prosecutor's office has the pictures now, so people should go there if they want to see the works or find out something about them. He knows a lot about their origins, he says, but he prefers to keep that to himself -- like a love affair that needs to be guarded. "And there is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures."

When asked whether he has ever been in love with a human being, he giggles and says: "Oh, no."

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1. Tragic story
sneeekysteve 11/18/2013
Cornelius Gorlitt appears to be a timid man who was never equipped emotionally to deal with life. He was lucky to inherit a billion dollars worth of art. Instead of standing up and facing life he became a recluse and hid in his apartment fawning over his art. He didnt have the emotional strength to make something of himself. He should have at least opened an art gallery. He couldnt even muster the emotional energy to do anything after his parents died. Its a tragedy for him that he wasted his own life.
2.
mishmos 11/18/2013
Does this man really expect anyone to believe that it never crossed his mind about where these pictures came from given the historical significance of the time.
3.
plutocrat 11/18/2013
By my understanding, whoever is art lover and his(hers) collection is legal will readily and willingly share his fortune with other art lovers. Only the person who knows that his treasure is of dark origin will hold it for himself. By the way how come that he was selling these paintings in Switzerland and all secretly?? If all was clear why he did not offer one single painting on auction and get millions to live with? This person knows that he is criminal and that it is coming his day when he will have to face the music and dance.
4. No Way
spon-facebook-10000370111 12/02/2013
I do not believe this guy at all. Unless he lived a life of a person completely clueless. Selling in secret? this guy has never worked a day in his life and has been selling these paintings to make his life so. Who the hell does he think he is.
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