Photo Gallery: Untangling the Art Mystery of the Century

Foto: ? Michael Dalder / Reuters/ REUTERS

Phantom Collector The Mystery of the Munich Nazi Art Trove

The world has been captivated by the discovery of more than 1,400 works of art in a Munich apartment, among them many lost masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. The mystery surrounding the paintings reveals much about the great tragedies of the 20th century -- and Germany's attempt to grapple with its past.

Two men are on horseback, it's summer, the colors are radiant, the riders are deep in conversation, and one of the horses prances in the surf. It's a brief moment on a beach in Holland - but it is also a moment for eternity.

Max Liebermann's painting, "Two Riders on the Beach," is an Impressionist masterpiece. He painted it in 1901, and a Jewish sugar refiner from Breslau in Lower Silesia, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, owned it for more than 30 years -- until the Nazis confiscated the work. After that, it disappeared.

Two attorneys in Berlin have been searching for the Liebermann for the last five years. Lothar Fremy and Jörg Rosbach specialize in restitution cases. In the postwar period, they helped clients assert claims for expropriated property in eastern Germany. The lawful heirs of the Liebermann paintings are brothers, 88 and 92, who live in London and New York, respectively. The sugar refiner from Breslau was their great uncle. The painting is probably worth about €1 million ($1.34 million) today.

When Fremy and Rosbach switched on the television last Tuesday, they weren't expecting much. The public prosecutor's office in the Bavarian city of Augsburg was giving a press conference on a mysterious Munich art find, and it was being broadcast live. Yet what they saw on TV was the announcement of the largest discovery of lost art from the Nazi period since World War II. Eleven of the 1,406 art works that had been seized in Munich a year and a half ago were presented in the press conference. The Liebermann was one of the paintings.

A Maddening Revelation

Fremy says that he cringed when he saw the press conference. Rosbach says that be became enraged. There had always been strong indications that the Gurlitt family had once owned the painting, and now it had been discovered among the other works in an apartment in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood. Public prosecutors, customs investigators and an art historian appeared in the broadcast. Both they and the German government had long known where the painting was located.

Rosbach called one of the heirs in New York after the press conference. He couldn't tell him much more than the fact that the painting had turned up, but that they would have to be patient. The attorneys immediately wrote to the public prosecutor's office in Augsburg, only to learn that no further information would be provided in the near future. All of this could take years, but the heirs, being 88 and 92, don't have much time left.

The next day, David Toren, one of the two heirs, called the attorneys in Berlin once again. "Our Liebermann," Toren said, "was even shown in the New York Times. It used to hang in Uncle David's house, in the room in front of the winter garden."

"Saved" was the word art historian Meike Hoffmann used on that morning in Augsburg, as she projected grainy, faded images of great masterworks onto the wall, as if she were giving a university seminar with a projector that had already seen its best days.

Historic Police Raid

In February 2012, German authorities raided the apartment of 75-year-old collector Cornelius Gurlitt and seized 1,406 works of art, a spectacular trove with a value that has yet to be estimated. It includes works by Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. There were also many prints and graphic works, which Gurlitt had kept in a cabinet.

At the press conference, it was not clear what exactly the collector was being accused of. There is talk of tax evasion and embezzlement, but the legal framework for the authorities' confiscation of the collection seems murky at best.

Gurlitt has been missing since the raid on his apartment. He inherited the massive, mysterious collection from his father, Hildebrand, an art historian, museum director and art dealer born in 1895. He was one of the men who helped establish modern art in Germany and who collaborated with the Nazis after 1933.

Cornelius was 23 when his father died in 1956. Relatives say the younger Gurlitt has never held a real job. He is a loner, they say, a man with no women in his life, who seeks beauty in art and avoids people. For a time, his only contact with his sister Benita, who died in 2012, was through letters.

Members of the family knew about the pictures he owned, but they saw nothing unusual about the son of a gallery owner inheriting artworks. They saw him occasionally, but not for many years. A relative says that the collection was Cornelius Gurlitt's lifeblood. "What that little man from Schwabing had in his apartment shouldn't go to any museum in the world," the relative explains. They speak of him as if he were a phantom, someone taking revenge on mankind who doesn't want to share his treasures with others -- a man whose spectacular inheritance was both a blessing and a curse.

At the Augsburg press conference, too, Gurlitt remained a phantom. One of the officials said he wasn't interested in the old man's whereabouts. At times, it almost seems as if the officials would prefer to see Gurlitt disappear completely. That would make things a lot simpler.

Because it is a complicated story, over which hang the shadows of a horrific century in Germany.

Bright Dawn of a Dark Era

The story begins in 1901, in Max Liebermann's studio on Pariser Platz in Berlin. Liebermann, 54 at the time, was from a wealthy Jewish merchant family that owned one of the two palaces adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. He painted "Two Riders on the Beach" in a room under a glazed roof, which he had had remodeled only two years earlier.

Liebermann was a late 19th-century painter, a true innovator and one of the most important German Impressionists, revered by art lovers of the urban upper middle class, who loved the light, the vibrant atmosphere and the open air in his paintings. When the painting was exhibited in Berlin for the first time, a critic praised the "delicate silhouettes" and nervous movements of the horses. But the Kaiser disliked Liebermann's attitude and his preference for the great Impressionists, like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas -- too French, too modern.

In 1927, long after Kaiser Wilhelm II had been driven out, Liebermann became an honorary citizen of Berlin. He had co-founded the Berlin Secession art association and held many public offices. When a torchlight procession passed his house on the day of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Liebermann famously said: "I cannot eat as much as I would like to vomit." When the Nazis began burning books in Berlin a few months later, he resigned from all of his offices, including the post of honorary president of the Academy of the Arts. In a press release of sorts, he declared: "It is my conviction that art has nothing to do with politics or dissent."

Two years later, Liebermann died at the age of 88. His daughter Käthe was able to emigrate to the United States in 1938. His widow Martha committed suicide in 1943 with an overdose of sleeping pills, when she learned that she was to be deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

A Painting's Path Through History

"Two Riders on the Beach" was first shown in 1901, at an exhibition in Berlin and at the Hermes art salon in Frankfurt. When legendary Berlin gallery owner Paul Cassirer exhibited the painting in November 1905, David Friedmann, a sugar refiner from Breslau, purchased the work. Friedmann, 48 at the time, was a man with an appreciation for art. He lent the painting to museums several times, lastly as part of a 1927 exhibition to commemorate Liebermann's 80th birthday.

Friedmann's two grandnephews were born in 1921 and 1925. As David Torren recalls, his great-uncle owned a magnificent villa at Ahornallee 27 in what was then Breslau, as well as four country estates outside the city. He hosted a card game every two weeks, and composer Richard Strauss was among the regular guests. Toren saw his great-uncle for the last time at his bar mitzvah, on May 7, 1938, when Friedmann gave the boy 100 Reichsmarks. It was a lot of money at the time, says Toren.

On Dec. 5, 1939, three months after the war broke out, Dr. Westram, a senior government official in Breslau, wrote a letter to the Reich minister of economics, under the heading: "Seizure of Jewish Art Collections."

One passage relates to the "estimated value of artworks owned by Friedmann, a Jew." According to Westram, Friedmann's collection included French Impressionists "like Courbet, Pissarro, Raffaelli, Rousseau," along with "good German" landscapes. "The painting by Liebermann (Riders on the Beach) would likely fetch at least 10 to 15,000 Reichsmarks abroad," he wrote. He also noted that he had forbidden Friedmann from selling his artworks without permission. It is unlikely that he later sold the works despite Westram's instructions.

'Forfeited to the Reich'

When Friedmann died in 1942, his villa was sold at auction and the proceeds were "forfeited to the Reich." His daughter Charlotte was deported to an SS death camp in 1943 and murdered there.

A week before the war began, Friedmann's great-nephew David was allowed to leave Germany and reached Sweden as part of a so-called Children's Transport. His brother was taken to Holland with another transport a day before the Nazi invasion of Poland, and was later sent to England. The brothers never lived together again. In 1943, their parents were killed in Auschwitz, where an acquaintance saw them being taken to the gas chamber.

Toren resettled in Israel in 1947, where he met an American woman. They moved to England and, in 1955, to the United States. A year later, portions of the Gurlitt art collection were exhibited in New York. But Toren only learned of the exhibition this year.

Toren became blind in recent years, while his brother has dementia. His son and his three nieces are very excited about the Munich discovery, says Toren. Speaking in German, with a frail voice, he asks: "Do you know if lists are going to be published?

Gallerist of the Avant-Garde

Art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, in whose gallery the Liebermann painting ended up, was born in Dresden in 1895. His grandfather Louis Gurlitt was a painter in the late Romantic period. His paternal grandmother was a Jew who had only been baptized at 24. Hildebrand's father was a professor of art history in Dresden, his brother became a musicologist, and a cousin, Wolfgang, ran an avant-garde gallery in Berlin. To this day, the Gurlitts remain proud of their educated middle-class roots, their appreciation of art, their Bohemian traditions, their many musical and academic talents, their heritage and their property.

As a young man, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a reserve lieutenant and fought in World War I. He was wounded several times and befriended the painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. He began studying art history in 1919, and he later wrote for various newspapers, including an American newspaper in 1925. In the same year, he became the director of the König Albert Museum in the eastern German city of Zwickau, where he devoted an entire room to Expressionism, still a young movement at the time. He organized several shows and lectures, and one of the artists he featured was Russian avant-garde star Wassily Kandinsky. Gurlitt was a doer, someone who achieved a great deal with modest means and even brought the avant-garde to the provinces.

The young museum director was dismissed in March 1930. His progressive tastes in art were not well received. The Militant League for German Culture, a Nazi organization formed in 1928, exploited Gurlitt's dismissal in a newspaper article, calling it a triumph over the "subhuman culture of Kollwitz, Zille, Barlach" and a victory over artists like Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, who it referred to as "bunglers."

Ousted by Nazis

Gurlitt moved to Hamburg, where he became director of the Kunstverein, or Art Association. He launched into his new position with the same vigor, and once again confronted the same growing agitation. Writing in the Hamburger Abendblatt, a Dr. Wall was critical of "art foreign to the species" and the "Jewification of the Kunstverein."

After only three years, in 1933, the Nazis saw to it that he was dismissed. Gurlitt was not yet 40 and unemployed. His wife Helene had recently given birth to her first child, their son Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius.

Two years later, in November 1934, Hildebrand's father said to a relative, with mild concern: "Hildebrand has no fixed employment, but he is a young man who knows how to earn a living, not without struggles, but certainly with a sufficient degree of success."

Hildebrand remained with his family in Hamburg, where his wife gave birth to Cornelius's sister, Nicoline Benita Renate, in 1935. By then, he was a successful art dealer, and he was still a connoisseur of the avant-garde and its precursors. At his gallery, Kunstkabinett, he even exhibited the officially proscribed works of Max Beckmann.

Hitler's Purge of 'Degenerate Art'

The works of Beckmann and other modern artists were soon publicly vilified as "decadent art" or "degenerate art." Adolf Hitler , a former painter of postcards, loved pseudo-classical art. Hildebrand Gurlitt must have been devastated by all of this, and by the Nazis' removal of all the great works of modern art from German museums starting in 1937, initially in response to an order by the Führer and later under a new law.

An exhibition of "Degenerate Art" opened in Munich in July 1937, an expression of Hitler's "relentless cleansing campaign against the last subversive elements of our culture." Two million people went to see the show.

A selection of about 600 pieces was shown at the exhibit, from a total of 20,000 works that had been removed from museums by officials from Hitler's propaganda ministry. Their intention was to sell most of the works, but exclusively abroad. Many gallery owners applied for the license to sell the works. A so-called disposal commission chose Berlin art dealers Karl Buchholz and Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard A. Böhmer, a gallery owner in Güstrow in northeastern Germany, and Hildebrand Gurlitt. All four were authorities on modern art, and were familiar with the international art market.

The stories behind the works and the museums where they had come from were to be covered up. "The white tags with the inventory numbers, as well as any stamps and inscriptions are to be removed," one directive read. The dealers bought some of the works from the German Reich, while others were placed on consignment.

On Oct. 25, 1938, Gurlitt gained access to the storage facility containing the "degenerate" art, which included works he had once acquired for the museum in Zwickau. They were kept at Schloss Schönhausen in Berlin. Gurlitt had customers in Basel and New York. He, like other dealers, also secretly sold graphic works in Germany. Hamburg art historian Maike Bruhns learned that Gurlitt showed drawings by Paul Klee and Emil Nolde to customers he trusted in the basement of his Kunstkabinett gallery.

Art to the Highest Bidder

Gurlitt took on more than 3,700 works on paper from Schloss Schönhausen. In May 1939, he sold the Franz Marc painting "Animal Destinies" to the Kunstmuseum Basel for 6,000 Swiss francs, for which he received a commission of 1,000 francs. For the same amount of money, he bought 1,723 works on paper from Schloss Schönhausen in mid-December 1940. They included watercolors, prints and drawings by Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and other Expressionists. Gurlitt signed his letters to the officials in Joseph Goebbels' propaganda ministry with the words "Heil Hitler!" or "With German greetings."

A companion later recalled that Gurlitt drove a small car in those days, and that he would see "paintings by Munch, Corinth and Franz Marc emerging from the car like some colorful ball of yarn, and it was never quite clear how all of it could have fit into that tiny car."

Then came a defining moment in Gurlitt's career. His friend Hermann Voss, director of the Dresden State Art Collections and special commissioner for the planned "Führer Museum" in Linz, Austria, hired him in 1943 to build Hitler's art collection. Gurlitt brokered the purchase of paintings from various countries, including the occupied countries of Western Europe -- France, the Netherlands and Belgium -- for several million Reichsmarks. He was provided with privileges and given the necessary documents. A letter from the "Special Commissioner for Linz" certified that Gurlitt was buying works of art "for the purposes of the Führer," and that it was "of great interest in terms of cultural policy" that the art dealer be allowed to "complete his mission expeditiously."

Hitler's Art Commissioner

Hitler's special commissioner for Linz had his office at the Dresden State Art Collections, where records were kept on the looted art. The purchases made for Linz between December 1942 and April 1945 are documented in the so-called "Wiedemann list." It includes the transactions conducted by Gurlitt's gallery.

Under the first entry, dated Sept. 6, 1943, Gurlitt delivered four paintings, including a work by Claude Joseph Vernet called "Seaport by Moonlight," for 40,000 Reichsmarks. One hundred thousand Reichsmarks were paid for the first delivery.

Gurlitt kept himself busy after that. Within a year, he delivered well over 100 paintings, rugs, drawings, miniatures, portraits, sculptures, tapestries and pastels to the special office. According to the list, the value of the artworks, which was already at rock bottom because of the pressure the Nazis were exerting on private collectors, was more than 9.2 million Reichsmarks, of which Gurlitt received a 5 percent commission.

The last Gurlitt painting arrived at the special office on Sept. 6, 1944. The work, "Madonna and Child Between Angels," by a member of the early Italian school, was priced at 200,000 Reichsmarks.

Even today, relatives of Hildebrand Gurlitt make the following statement: "As a family, we too were proud of his achievements. As a non-Aryan, it was quite a feat, for an outlaw to have penetrated into the Nazis' inner circle and, as such, to have made the art deals with the Americans possible."

But which side was the art dealer actually on? If he was paying junk prices to take paintings off the hands of persecuted Jewish collectors -- was he actually helping them?

Hildebrand Gurlitt: Savior or Plunderer?

Gurlitt toured the territories occupied by Nazi Germany like a kind of traveling salesman. In France he acquired 19th-century paintings for German cigarette manufacturer Philipp F. Reemtsma. He attended auctions that sold off looted art from museums and stolen art that authorities had seized from Jewish owners. Is it possible that he knew nothing of the origins of this artwork?

In the spring of 1945, part of Gurlitt's collection was in Dresden; the family was living at Kaitzerstrasse 26 at the time. During the Allied air raids on the night of Feb. 13-14, the building was nearly completely destroyed, but Gurlitt was apparently able to save most of his art trove. In mid-March 1945, as he later wrote in a sworn statement, he was able to salvage the remainder of his "safeguarded paintings" and pack them in "roughly 25 crates," along with numerous boxes with hundreds of drawings and prints.

He then transported the collection in a "truck with a trailer" to Aschbach in the southern German state of Bavaria, where he said he stored it in a castle that was soon captured by advancing US troops. "All crates and boxes," said Gurlitt, "were carefully checked by American commissions on a number of occasions." Many of the works were confiscated and brought to the central collecting point in Wiesbaden, he noted.

House Arrest and Denazification

After the war, Hildebrand Gurlitt was placed under house arrest. He was not aware of any wrongdoing. In November 1946, he wrote to a friend: "Having been forced to change my profession, and then obstinately achieving hard-earned success as a dealer, although I essentially had no disposition as a dealer, and having lived all those years in fear and anxiety of denunciations, forced labor and crossbreed battalions -- really, I now hardly have the strength to protest."

Gurlitt rated himself as "unbelastet," meaning that he had never been a Nazi sympathizer. He said that he became an art dealer because he lost his job as a museum curator in 1933 and forfeited his pension rights, "because of my commitment to so-called degenerate art," as he put it. Furthermore: "My anti-fascist convictions are well-known. According to the Nuremberg laws, I was a second-degree crossbreed (Mischling)."

American officials were skeptical, and described Gurlitt as withdrawn and nervous. They thought his behavior was suspicious, and asked him why he had brought crates with the stamp of the Dresden state art collections to western Germany, along with alleged gold bars. He remained evasive.

At the same time, he agreed to give back a number of works in his possession that he had acquired in France. He also compiled a comprehensive list of the paintings that he had purchased in France during the war, which included Rodins, Chardins and Rembrandts.

Gurlitt submitted to the authorities a number of character references that he hoped would clear him of any suspicion of being a collaborator. For instance, he had Hamburg lawyer Walter Clemens confirm that he had "always been an unequivocal opponent of Nazism." Clemens went on to say that Gurlitt's Hamburg art gallery was "a safe haven for free art" and a "center for anti-Nazi activities."

A Double Life

His denazification file also includes a letter from Max Beckman. On Aug. 6, 1946, the German Expressionist artist wrote from Amsterdam: "Dear Herr Hildebrand Gurlitt ... you were actually the last individual in Nazi Germany who, at great personal risk, showed my final exhibition in Hamburg, and you braved dangers to visit me during the war, purchased paintings from me and, at the same time, made disparaging remarks about the regime." The letter ends with: "Take care. Yours truly, (signed) Beckmann."

One of the art dealer's secretaries, Maja Gotthelf, also attested to Gurlitt's character. She was able to confirm that she never signed Gurlitt's letters with "Heil Hitler" and that, "despite his high-profile position," he had "helped the Jews and other politically persecuted individuals in a self-sacrificing manner." Gurlitt's daughter Benita, an art historian who was born in 1935 and died last year, wrote in October 2002 to a colleague in Hamburg: "I know when he did business in the Third Reich he always had an eye for saving banned art and safeguarding it in a protected location."

She went on to speculate: "Perhaps he sometimes even enjoyed outwitting the hated Nazis in this dangerous and risky 'game' for a 'Jewish crossbreed.'"

His true convictions, however, were of a different nature.

The fact of the matter is that Hildebrand Gurlitt led two lives, as shown by many file documents. The Hamburg Police Department wrote in 1947 that Gurlitt allegedly "profited enormously" from the period of the Third Reich. "Aside from an exaggerated sense of business acumen, he reportedly took advantage of the predicament of the Jews and associated with men from the counterintelligence service."

This was based on testimony by Gurlitt's former secretary Ingeborg Hertmann. She noticed that Gurlitt "maintained regular business and personal contacts with the Propaganda Ministry, Dr. (Rolf) Hetsch (the Propaganda Ministry's consultant for the visual arts), ... (Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert) Speer and (Propaganda Minister Joseph) Goebbels."

In the years 1942 and 1943, she said that he "only worked for the Führer." She went on to say that at the Hamburg Kunsthalle -- an art museum in the city -- he purchased paintings by Liebermann "at cheap prices that were incomprehensible to me and sold them for astronomical amounts of money." The secretary added: "When the Jews were deported to the Lodz ghetto, they entrusted Gurlitt with all of their paintings to be sold. After a while, these people wrote letters, asking him to send money because they were starving. Gurlitt then told me in a calm and indifferent manner to send 10 Reichsmarks to the Jew."

American Generosity

Nevertheless, the Americans were generous. Gurlitt was allowed to keep the works of art that he had declared his private property at the collecting point of the US administration in Wiesbaden. In December 1950, the US high commissioner approved the return of 134 paintings and drawings from the "Gurlitt collection." In addition to the artwork, there were Nepalese antiquities and Meissen porcelain. For two additional works of art, the art dealer produced a certificate from a Swiss friend who attested that he gave Gurlitt a Picasso and a Chagall in Switzerland "around 1943." He subsequently received these works as well. A photo of the Chagall, an "allegory with three moons," was shown last week at a press conference.

In Gurlitt's later years, before he died in a car crash in 1956, he served as the director of the Düsseldorf Kunstverein from 1948. He still had an enormous amount of energy, and he transformed this small art association into a captivating institution, which of course showed modern art. He also continued to deal in artwork. Indeed, it's likely that after 1945 Gurlitt added a number of works to the collection that was found at the home of his son Cornelius in Munich.

The paintings returned by the Americans also included Max Lieberman's "Two Riders on the Beach," which had somehow made its way from David Friedmann's conservatory in Breslau to Gurlitt's crates of artwork in Dresden.

Reckoning and Recrimination

The shadow of the dark events of the 20th century hung over the press conference last Tuesday in Augsburg, which became necessary in the wake of stunning revelations last Monday by the German newsmagazine Focus. Yet the press conference raised more questions than it answered: an enormous art trove of unknown provenance, a police raid on a Munich apartment in February 2012, the confiscation of all the artworks and the bewildering legal arguments for this action, the long silence surrounding the spectacular discovery; the ongoing reticence to divulge what else has been discovered aside from the 11 revealed exhibits, and, finally, the apparent disinterest in Gurlitt, the owner of the collection and alleged criminal offender. None of this was explained.

Instead, investigators, public prosecutors and art historians presented themselves as the serendipitous saviors of a treasure, but they apparently didn't quite know what to do next. It almost seemed like a desperate and belated attempt to come to terms with everything the Nazis had done to artists, the art world and the owners of these works.

Yet it is precisely these individuals who are primarily outraged that they have only now heard of this find -- and continue to be denied any further information. It was only after the US exerted pressure that the German government first urged the investigators last Thursday to release a complete list of the works of art as soon as possible.

It must have dawned on investigators early on that they were overwhelmed by the case. Are the paintings genuine? Where did they come from? In the spring of 2012, customs investigators approached Germany's Finance Ministry, but ministry officials apparently underestimated the political sensitivity of the case. They then asked the commissioner for cultural and media affairs (BKM) at the Chancellery for help. His experts in the restitution of artwork recommended a Berlin art historian: Meike Hoffmann, 51, from the "Degenerate Art" Research Center at the Free University of Berlin.

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.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan and Paul Cohen