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BERN (Reuters) - A Swiss art gallery discovered on Wednesday that it had been named as the sole heir of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive German owner of a hoard of masterpieces discovered accidentally in a tax probe, who died this week aged 81.
The Bern Art Museum said the news "came like a bolt from the blue" as it had no connection with Gurlitt. The collection - put together by his father Hildebrand, a dealer in so-called "degenerate" art for Adolf Hitler - is worth an estimated 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).
Kunstmuseum Bern's director, Mathias Frehner, said in a statement that Gurlitt's lawyer had told him the museum had been named his "unrestricted and unfettered sole heir".
The museum's response was tempered by caution since an as yet undetermined number of the works, which include hundreds of masterpieces by the likes of Chagall and Picasso, were looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners during World War Two.
"The Board of Trustees and Directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature," said Frehner.
Gurlitt, who died this week following a complicated heart operation, had secretly stored the works at his Munich apartment and a house in nearby Salzburg, Austria, occasionally selling a piece to finance his quiet lifestyle and his healthcare.
His family pretended the collection had been destroyed in the bombing of their home in Dresden during World War Two.
It remained a family secret until 2012, when tax inspectors stumbled across the hoard during an unrelated inquiry. Some of the claimants are angry that Bavarian and German authorities kept it secret for 1-1/2 years until a magazine broke the news, forcing them to go public.
Some claimants hope that, with Gurlitt's demise, the probe into the provenance of the collection will proceed quickly, and will no longer be complicated by the pending tax probe into Gurlitt and his own claim to be the rightful owner.
The media's fascination with the story looks likely to go on, with Germany's top-selling daily Bild reporting on Wednesday that public prosecutors had ordered an autopsy, even though Gurlitt's lawyer said he had died at home under medical supervision.
"To rule out any third-party involvement, we have ordered an autopsy. We want to err on the side of caution," Bild quoted Munich public prosecutor Thomas Steinkraus-Koch as saying, in an advance copy of an article due to be published in Thursday's edition.
Reporting by Christopher Alessi, Stephen Brown and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Stephen Brown and Kevin Liffey