Insight: Secretive art world let German hoarder hide in plain sight

Fri Nov 8, 2013 10:48am EST
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By Alexandra Hudson and Irene Preisinger

BERLIN/MUNICH (Reuters) - On the doorbell of the apartment in Munich's bohemian Schwabing district is a name once distinguished for architecture and music but infamous since the Nazi era by association with the plundering of art works owned by Jews: Gurlitt.

The discovery of hundreds of priceless paintings and drawings within has raised questions about how a man with such a red-flag surname - Cornelius Gurlitt - kept his secret for so long while selling works on the market.

Interviews with relatives, dealers, lawyers and art experts show he moved freely for decades between Germany, Austria and Switzerland to sell from his hoard of Modernist and Renaissance masterpieces. They were not locked in a vault, but stacked in his flat, hiding in plain sight in Germany's third largest city.

In the art world, which thrives on discretion, it appears to have been an open secret that Cornelius was sitting on at least part of the collection of his father Hildebrand, who worked for the Nazis selling art branded "degenerate" that was taken from museums or stolen or extorted from Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

To everyone else - including, apparently, the Gurlitt clan - it was a shock when authorities reluctantly confirmed a magazine report that a routine customs check had uncovered 1,406 works with a value up to 1 billion euros ($1.34 billion).

"It is absolutely astonishing. I had no idea that such a collection existed," said Dietrich Gurlitt, a 94-year-old first cousin of Cornelius.

Cornelius Gurlitt, who does not appear to have any living direct family, sat quietly while officers suspecting tax fraud stumbled across racks and drawers containing 121 framed and 1,285 unframed pieces.

He has since vanished. The 79-year-old currently faces no charges and is not on any known wanted list.   Continued...

File photo of a print of the painting 'Lion-Tamer' by artist Max Beckmann is displayed in a book about the German expressionist at Lempertz auction house in Cologne November 4, 2013. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/Files