Phantom Collector The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove
Part 4: A Massive Investigative Task
Hoffmann is hopelessly overwhelmed with the research into the provenance of all 1,406 works of art. She has only delved to a limited extent into the stories behind nearly 500 of the paintings. Cultural officials at the Chancellery now expect investigators to hire additional art historians.
In response to mounting international pressure -- from representatives of Jewish families looking for paintings that disappeared during the Nazi era as well as from the World Jewish Congress and other advocacy groups -- Berlin signaled on Monday that the investigators should promptly publish a list of all works of unknown origin, with details said to come by the end of the week. "We have to find a legally correct way of proceeding," said government spokesman Steffen Seibert.
Authorities in Augsburg say they are investigating Gurlitt on suspicion of tax evasion and embezzlement. But it would be extremely difficult to make such charges stick. Inheritance tax? Cornelius Gurlitt's parents died in 1956 and 1968. Income tax? The sale of paintings is not subject to income tax. Embezzlement? The statute of limitations ran out decades ago.
The legal situation could turn out to be so complex that investigators are probably actually hoping that Cornelius Gurlitt passes away before they complete their inquiries. Yet, although Gurlitt had no children, there would be no lack of heirs in his large family.
Gurlitt's family could thus possibly inherit the majority of the works, namely all those that were confiscated by the Nazis as "degenerate art." Under German law, there is no obligation for the restitution of these works, unless they were loaned to museums by private individuals or had foreign owners. There no longer exists a legal claim for the return of the paintings to the heirs of the former owners. All time limits for such claims have expired.
'Lost as a Result of Persecution'
International embroilments are unavoidable. The French masters that Hildebrand Gurlitt purchased in Paris came from French museums and French collectors, most of them Jews. They were stolen or sold under duress well below their market value -- "lost as a result of persecution," as legal experts call it. These paintings are covered by the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art of 1998, which was signed by 44 countries -- including Germany -- that agreed to return looted art or at least find "fair solutions," in other words, to provide compensation to the heirs of the original owners.
Hence, although all time limits for the return of the works have long since expired according to German law, the Washington Conference states that the Gurlitt family has a moral obligation. Indeed, it is actually conceivable that the heirs in the US could file suits, just as the descendants of Berlin art collector Lilly Cassirer Neubauer won a case before a US appeals court in Los Angeles against the Republic of Spain and the royal Spanish family. That lawsuit revolved around a painting by Camille Pissarro that the owner was forced to sell in 1939.
Meanwhile, as this article went to press on Friday, Cornelius Gurlitt seemed to have disappeared. His relatives said that they didn't know where he was. Even his closest friends were puzzled. They were worried about him, they said, because he suffers from a severe heart condition. Then on Saturday, reporters from French magazine Paris Match claimed to have confronted Gurlitt at a shopping center near his Munich apartment. According to the report, Gurlitt dismissed their interview request by saying: "Approval that comes from the wrong side is the worst thing that could happen."
He uttered a few similarly cryptic sentences on the day of the police raid. He told the officials it wasn't necessary. He was an old man after all, he said, with only a few years to live, and when he dies, everything will be transferred to the state anyway.
Cornelius Gurlitt the Phantom
Together with his sister, Gurlitt attended the Odenwaldschule -- a private rural boarding school in southern Germany -- from 1946 to 1948. Later, he received at least some training as a conservator, which is also one reason why the paintings and prints are in such good condition. Since 1960, he has owned a small house in Salzburg, on Carl-Storch-Strasse, in the affluent district of Aigen, where the Porsche family has a villa and legendary soccer player Franz Beckenbauer lives.
The garden is overgrown, rusty latticed iron bars protect the windows, and the roof is covered with moss. One neighbor says that sometimes at night there was an "eerie" light in Gurlitt's Salzburg residence. He said that Gurlitt hasn't been to the house for a long time.
A neighbor describes him as a man of small stature, always smartly dressed, wearing a tie and jacket, and a black coat in winter. He says Gurlitt always drove a small car, and only greeted people when he was spoken to. He made such an odd impression that the neighbors reportedly did some research and found out that the family's house burnt down in Dresden in 1945. "That explains why he's got a screw loose," says the neighbor. The police should search the house -- perhaps they'll find his corpse, he quips.
In a letter written in 1962, Gurlitt's sister Benita mentions her brother and notes that he is living "as a completely reclusive painter, entirely alone and withdrawn and very happily content in Salzburg."
Gurlitt came to the attention of customs officials in September 2010 because he was carrying 9,000 ($12,000) with him on a train from Zurich to Munich. He made a nervous impression and said that he had sold a painting to Berne gallery owner Bernhard Kornfeld, which appears to be a lie. Kornfeld said that he hadn't seen Gurlitt for over 20 years.
'I Feel Sorry for Him'
In November 2011, the Lempertz auction house in the western German city of Cologne offered a painting by expressionist Max Beckmann: "The Lion Tamer," owned by Cornelius Gurlitt. Markus Stötzel, the lawyer representing the heirs of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, contacted Lempertz. Flechtheim was Beckmann's gallerist in the 1920s and, according to Stötzel's research, the painting came into the possession of Cornelius' father Hildebrand in 1934. Flechtheim had to flee the Nazis, and he traveled to Paris and then to London. "On the back of the painting," says Stötzel, "is a stamp from Gurlitt with a Düsseldorf address."
All three sides reached an agreement. The seller Cornelius Gurlitt was to receive roughly 60 percent of the proceeds, and the Flechtheim heirs approximately 40 percent. The painting was sold for 725,000.
Karl-Sax Feddersen, a lawyer for Lempertz auction house, described Gurlitt as "a frail-sounding elderly gentleman," adding that he was "slightly conspiratorial, but that's not unusual in our business. A very nice man, Herr Gurlitt. He doesn't have a lawyer. I feel sorry for him."
Cornelius Gurlitt could now use the services of a lawyer. His case is not a legally hopeless endeavor, and there are many attorneys who would gladly help him. He doesn't appear to be interested in engaging in a legal battle, though. Gurlitt is a phantom, an invisible man. He is not registered in Germany, not insured, and has had Austrian citizenship for quite some time now.
The Invisible Man
Shortly after the incident in the train, friends of Gurlitt had the police force their way into his house because they feared that he was lying there helpless. But he wasn't there. When Gurlitt returned much later to Salzburg he found a note on the door from the police. It must have been very upsetting for him. Were they now after him in Austria as well?
It's interesting to note that he has already negotiated the return of a number of paintings done by his paternal aunt, an expressionist painter who committed suicide in 1919.
The art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt was a man who led two lives: one as a staunch defendant of the avant-garde and a supporter of suppressed art, the other as a Holocaust profiteer. His daughter said that he described himself as "happy" after the war, and "not one bit traumatized."
It seems that his son decided not to lead an ordinary life, but to live like a phantom, leaving behind as few traces as possible.
Last Wednesday, however, SPIEGEL received a letter. Sender: Cornelius Gurlitt, Artur-Kutscher-Platz 1/5, 80802 Munich, dated Nov. 4. It was written on a typewriter, and the signature is small and compact.
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen!
In a broadcast by Bayrische Rundfunk I heard that your magazine, which is widely esteemed in Germany due to its remarkably witty and noble-minded character, plans to publish an article in which the name Gurlitt is to appear in print.
I kindly ask you to no longer print this name in your highly respected publication.
Otherwise one could easily get the impression that Dr. H. Gurlitt, who was a second-degree Mischling according to the Nuremberg laws, had once written newspaper articles that were published in widely known newspapers such as Das Reich and Völkischer Beobachter. Thank you very much in advance and kind regards. (signed) Cornelius Gurlitt
It seems somewhat unclear, but by all appearances Gurlitt intended to write to Focus magazine, in the hope that the name Gurlitt would no longer be mentioned, and he confused that magazine with SPIEGEL.
The good news is that Cornelius Gurlitt is alive.
BY FELIX BOHR, ÖZLEM GEZER, LOTHER GORRIS, ULRIKE KNÖFEL, SVEN RÖBEL, MICHAEL SONTHEIMER AND STEFFEN WINTER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan and Paul Cohen