BERLIN (Reuters) - The elderly German recluse whose Munich apartment contained a secret art hoard, including masterpieces looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners in World War Two, has died after a heart operation, his spokesman said on Tuesday.
Authorities stumbled upon Cornelius Gurlitt's trove of paintings and drawings by the likes of Marc Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso in 2012 after a routine check on a train from Switzerland turned up wads of cash, triggering a tax inquiry.
His spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, said the 81-year-old Gurlitt had decided to return home, looked after by his doctor and a nurse after a complicated heart operation, and spend his final days in the Munich flat that once housed part of his beloved collection.
Gurlitt's collection of 1,280 artworks was assembled by his father Hildebrand, an art dealer put in charge of selling what Adolf Hitler called "degenerate" art, and ordered to be removed from state museums to help fund the Nazis' war effort.
Now worth an estimated 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), the hoard remained undetected for decades in the Munich flat and a house over the Austrian border in Salzburg. Gurlitt sold pieces occasionally to finance his quiet lifestyle and his healthcare.
"I haven't loved anything more than my pictures in my life. But hopefully it will all be cleared up soon and I will finally get my pictures back," he told German magazine Der Spiegel in a rare interview last November, when he was already very frail.
But a lawyer for one U.S.-based claimant said Gurlitt's death should mean that German authorities have fewer reasons for delaying the return of looted artworks to their rightful heirs.
"Mr Gurlitt's death, if anything, gives them fewer excuses for not turning the painting over immediately," said August Matteis, a Washington-based attorney for American claimant David Toren, a retired lawyer who has a claim on "Two Riders on the Beach" by German Impressionist Max Liebermann, who was Jewish.
Toren, 88, is an heir of David Friedmann, an industrialist from Breslau who owned the painting from at least 1905 to 1939. Toren told Reuters last year he could remember the picture hanging on the wall of his great uncle's villa before the war.
Friedmann died in 1942. Toren escaped from Germany and spent the war in Sweden. His older brother reached the Netherlands and now lives in London, but their parents perished at Auschwitz.
The Liebermann painting was among the first works from the hoard to be posted by German authorities on their "Lost Art" website (www.lostart.de) to help establish provenance. But Matteis said there had been no progress in his client's case.
"Some of the excuses that Germany was using are now out of the way - for example, that there's an active investigation regarding Mr Gurlitt's potential tax evasion, and that Mr Gurlitt may have a claim or something," Matteis told Reuters.
The provenance of other pieces has been established and their return authorized, including the Henri Matisse portrait "Sitting Woman". It belonged to the Paris-based Jewish collector Paul Rosenberg and found its way into the collection of Hitler's air force chief Hermann Goering, before ending up with Gurlitt.
Cornelius Gurlitt recalled helping his father Hildebrand load a truck with some of his Renaissance and Modernist artworks to save them in wartime Dresden. He hid some works in a Bavarian aristocrat's castle but the family said after the war that the collection had been destroyed by the heavy bombing of Dresden.
Hildebrand was arrested as a Nazi collaborator but freed because he was one-quarter Jewish. He persuaded the "Monuments Men" - a military unit set up by the Allies to save Europe's cultural heritage, as portrayed in a movie by George Clooney - to return about 100 of his works that they had confiscated.
In his son Cornelius Gurlitt's mind, the German state had no right to impound treasures he called the love of his life.
Cornelius agreed to cooperate with authorities to determine if any of the art had been stolen or extorted from its original owners, including Jewish collectors fleeing the Holocaust, under an agreement that permitted a task force to research the works of suspicious provenance while others were returned to him.
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters praised Gurlitt for agreeing to the restitution work, saying he would be "rightly recognized and respected for taking this step".
Gurlitt himself told Der Spiegel he was "giving nothing back willingly". But many claimants reserved their anger for German authorities who kept quiet about the discovery for 1-1/2 years until a story in a news magazine forced them to go public.
Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Heinrich