Interview with a Phantom Cornelius Gurlitt Shares His Secrets
Part 3: 'What Kind of State Puts My Private Property on Display?'
Gurlitt has to answer so many questions for which he has no answers. "I never had anything to do with acquiring the pictures, only with saving them," he says. He helped his father back in Dresden when they saved the works of art from the Russians. People should be thankful to him, he says. "My father knew the Russians were getting closer and closer."
His father quickly organized a vehicle from the carpool in Dresden, he recalls, and father and son loaded the artwork into the car. His father then brought everything to a farmer near Dresden, and later to a castle in southern Germany. He says that his father knew people everywhere in Germany.
"People only see banknotes between these papers with paint -- unfortunately," he says.
"I'm not as courageous as my father," he says. "He loved art and fought for it. The state prosecutor has to restore my father's reputation."
The Swiss Incident
The life of Cornelius Gurlitt has become an infinite loop of remorse and coincidence. It was pure chance that he was the one who survived everything. It was also pure chance that he boarded a train with 9,000 in his pocket and attracted the attention of customs agents -- and that he first lied and then was caught red-handed when they searched him in the toilet. The Swiss incident annoys him terribly. He says he sold a painting there over 20 years ago and deposited the money on a Swiss bank account. The art dealer took care of the transport -- he had nothing to do with that, he contends. "I have never illegally taken anything not cleared by customs over the Swiss border," he says.
He claims he has never had income in Switzerland, and never received interest payments. "They should just ask in Switzerland, and then they would realize that I don't have anything there," he says. German railway operator Deutsche Bahn could have given him a note, he insists -- one that says that customs officials also look for money on the trains, not just for goods. Then he never would have boarded that train.
The ICE enters Augsburg station. "The public prosecutor I sent all the documents to is here in Augsburg," says Gurlitt. "I don't understand why he hasn't contacted me."
He says he sent the public prosecutor a photo of his parents' burnt-down house in Dresden. He included old newspaper articles to document the smear campaign against Hildebrand Gurlitt that led to "his father's downfall." Gurlitt doesn't understand why all of this has become public. Courts and judges have to decide on this, and he only has to justify himself to them, he argues. The public prosecutor told him that he would eventually receive an indictment, but nothing has come so far, except for the paparazzi at his front door. "I'm not a murderer, so why are they chasing me?"
He has received a letter informing him that a number of works of art are going to be returned to him. He doesn't know which ones. But he doesn't believe the public prosecutor. "I have never wanted anything from the state." He says he never claimed a penny in benefits. He talks about Hartz IV, Germany's program of benefits for the long-term unemployed, as if it were an unknown disease. He always promptly pays his property tax. Otherwise he says he has had nothing to do with German authorities. Gurlitt receives no pension and has never had health insurance. He has always had his German passport renewed at the consulate in Salzburg, but it expired nearly two years ago.
Sales to Help Pay for Medical Treatment
The last time he was in Austria, at his house in Salzburg, he was taken to hospital because he couldn't walk anymore. It was heart trouble. He had to stay in a clinic for an entire month where an alarm sounded if he got out of bed. "As if I were a criminal," says Gurlitt.
But his health has deteriorated in recent years. He has had additional hospital stays and suffered from cataracts. Gurlitt always paid the doctors in cash. In the fall of 2011, he delivered the "Lion Tamer" by expressionist Max Beckmann to the Lempertz auction house in the western German city of Cologne. He says their lawyer was very nice -- and everything was straightened out with the heirs. The painting was sold for 725,000 ($978,000) and Gurlitt received nearly 400,000, with the rest going to the heirs.
Actually he wanted to part with the Liebermann, but he couldn't get it off the wall. "So I took the Beckmann," he says, noting that it was "solidly" packed. A beautiful painting, typical of Beckmann, and a key work, but Gurlitt urgently needed money. Even back then, he was constantly traveling to see his doctor in the small town.
We arrive at a hotel -- a white three-story building. There is no one at the reception. He always stays here. He rings from the reception to find out his room number, and the golden keychain is hanging for him on the door. There are no people and it's quiet. The room has plastic curtains decorated with tulips and gerberas, fluorescent lights and pictures on the wall that look like they come from a mail order catalogue. "Very nice," says Gurlitt.
He has index cards with the sentences that he wants to read out to the doctor to make a good impression. Gurlitt doesn't often speak with people. On the night before his doctor's appointment, he decides to go to bed at 6 p.m. so he can get up again at 2 o'clock in the morning. His appointment isn't until 8:40 a.m., but he needs time to prepare himself. He's had a bleeding wound on his foot for months, and he wants to wrap it with a new bandage.
'I've Really Missed The Paintings'
The next morning he calls a taxi to travel the 300 meters (1,000 feet) to the doctor's office. When we arrive, there is 3.40 on the meter, but he gives the driver 20 -- after all, it has to be worth the cabbie's while. The doctor tells Gurlitt that morning that his heart is weaker than usual, but that's due to all the excitement.
Back at the hotel room, he sits on his bed. Gurlitt is wearing his dressing gown under a long gray coat. He seems relieved. The nightlight is on.
Gurlitt sees his paintings in the newspapers. He's appalled. "What kind of state is this that puts my private property on display?" he asks. Gurlitt has tears in his eyes. He whispers: "They have to come back to me."
The next morning, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback is quoted in the newspaper as saying that the authorities should definitely speak with Gurlitt.
It's painful to see Gurlitt being slowly consumed by despair. "They have it all wrong," he says. "I won't speak with them, and I won't voluntarily give back anything, no, no. The public prosecutor has enough that exonerates me."
Gurlitt hopes the paintings that are rightfully his will soon be returned. He would still like to sell one work, though, perhaps the Liebermann -- if he is entitled to it, as he puts it -- to pay his hospital bills. The remaining paintings should be returned to his apartment, he says. The Chagall will then be put back into the cupboard, and the painting of the woman playing the piano will go in the hallway, where his mother always hung it.
"I've really missed the paintings -- I notice that now." He says there has been enough public exposure -- of him and his paintings -- and he won't give them to any museum in the world. They have enough other things that they can exhibit, he contends.
"When I'm dead, they can do with them what they want." But until then, he wants to have them for himself. Then he'll finally have a bit of "peace and quiet" again.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan and Paul Cohen