The Discovery of the Gurlitt Collection

By Farrah Gowar

London, United Kingdom

Gurlitt was instructed to sit in the corner and watch as Picasso, Otto Dix, Renoir, Max Lieberman, Delacroix and Canaletto were packed into boxes and marched out of the apartment. (Photo credit: Peter Klaunzer / Keystone via AP)

On a train between Zürich and Munich

For most of his life, Cornelius Gurlitt had lived as a recluse, choosing only to keep regular contact with his parents and sister while they were alive. He first appeared in the public eye after a train journey on September 22nd, 2010. It is not unusual for passengers traveling between Zürich, New Zealand, and Munich, Germany to be carrying copious amounts of cash on their person. Gurlitt was no different. To most from the outside, the frail, white-haired, 77-year-old aroused no suspicion, but to the Bavarian officials, he stood out. Upon immediate questioning, he denied having any money on him, but after a body search was conducted in the train toilets, he was found to have been carrying €9,000.


On the train he claimed to have a Munich residence, which was later discovered to be unregistered, despite a law requiring inhabitants to register their address with the local council. He did, however, have a registered residence in Salzburg, Austria, which he did not mention when questioned on the train. He existed almost entirely ‘off the grid’ and separate from most of society. Authorities searched for bank accounts, social security, health and tax records in his name, but nothing was found. He didn’t even have a number listed in the phone book. It was as if he didn’t exist. Although this did not cause any immediate action, the lack of information stood out to authorities and he was put under surveillance.


Upon further investigation it was revealed that Gurlitt had been living in an apartment, worth over a million dollars, in Schwabing (a more expensive area in Munich) for the better part of half a century. But more than anything else, it is the saying “the clue is in the name” that gives the most insight into the ghost man.


Gurlitt. To most, his surname is just that: a name. But to the world of art history, particularly those associated with Raubkunst (art stolen by the Nazis), Gurlitt is a noteworthy name.

Hildebrand Gurlitt

The Gurlitt family had long been associated with the arts, with many members becoming art dealers, composers, artists and musicians. Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was no different. During the 1920s, Gurlitt became the director of the Zwickau Museum, during which he organized exhibitions of contemporary art, most notably by Max Peschstein. While his exhibitions were financially successful, they caused hostility amongst the local conservatives. Eventually, public opinion and financial difficulties in the city led to Gurlitt's dismissal. He took up a post as the managing director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg but was forcibly dismissed by the Nazis in 1933 after the policy of Gleichschaltung (the coordination of all organizations, under which workers, who were deemed acceptable, were forced to join Nazi affiliated versions of trade unions) was introduced.


Gurlitt began to trade in art, buying pieces from private collectors, including Jewish collectors who were being forced to pay extortionate taxes or were liquidating possessions to flee the country, at a dramatically reduced price. Later, he would claim that he was doing them a favor by buying from collections which other art dealers avoided, but would also be noncompliant with post-war efforts to try and return the art or supply compensation for its previous owners.


He had been classified as “a quarter Jew” under the Nuremberg Laws, yet he was one of four dealers authorized by Hitler and Göring in the newly formed Nazi Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art. The commission bought art, which had often been stolen or sold at a fraction of its price, in the name of the Nazi party. This art was then displayed in degenerate art exhibitions. Otherwise, it was sold to international buyers, often with no report of the commission. During the war, Gurlitt made frequent trips to and from Paris, buying artworks from desperate sellers or entering the abandoned houses of rich collectors, all the while claiming that he was saving the artworks and that he was only partaking in it because he had no other option. Among others, Gurlitt acquired Matisse’s Seated Woman, belonging to Paul Rosenberg, found in a bank vault near Boudreaux, where he had left it before fleeing to America.


By 1943, Gurlitt became a main buyer for the future Linz Art Gallery (a museum which was never realized). Armed with the millions of Reichsmarks that he had received from Goebbels, he bought hundreds of pieces for the prospective gallery. On top of that, Gurlitt received a five percent commission on every piece, allowing him to expand his own large personal collection during these trips. From March 1941 to July 1944, tens of thousands of pieces of art arrived in Germany from France, which would be only a fraction of the final number. It is estimated that over twenty percent of Europe’s art was looted by the Nazis. It was inevitable that, while some of these pieces would be displayed in Nazi art exhibitions or be sold on to buyers outside the country, many of the works would make their way into the private collections of top-ranking Nazi officials.


Post-war, Gurlitt's reputation remained relatively untarnished by his affiliations with the Nazi Party. He claimed in a six-page-long essay he wrote in his defense that he bought art to save it from the Nazis. He would continue to deal art until his death in 1956.

The Munich Apartment

After being put under surveillance, it took a year for a search warrant to be issued on the grounds of suspected tax evasion and embezzlement. However, Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment was not searched for five months after the search warrant was issued in September 2011, and there is no explanation provided for the delay. In December 2011, Gurlitt emerged once again to sell a painting at an auction in Cologne, The Lion Tamer by Max Beckmann for $1.7 million. According to Der Spiegel, the money was split 60-40 with the family of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art collector who had fled to Paris and then London, leaving his collection behind. This arrangement alerted authorities to the idea that Gurlitt may still be in possession of more of his father’s collection.


When authorities finally entered the apartment on February 28th, 2012, nothing could have prepared them for the sheer number of pieces they would find. 1,406 pieces of art (121 framed and 1,285 unframed) were stored in the apartment. Gurlitt was instructed to sit in the corner and watch as Picasso, Otto Dix, Renoir, Max Lieberman, Delacroix and Canaletto were packed into boxes and marched out of the apartment. The collection was worth millions of dollars, possibly over a billion. A year later, on February 10th, authorities found another 60 pieces in his Salzburg residence.


Gurlitt’s life revolved around art. He had not watched television since 1963 nor had he been to the cinema since 1967. He kept in contact with the outside world through the radio and reading the papers, but so rarely did he venture into it. He regularly unpacked the paintings to admire them. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2012, the only interview he has ever done, Gurlitt talked about the loss he has experienced in his life - the deaths of his parents and sister - but said that “saying goodbye to my pictures was the most painful of all.” He detested the media attention, wanting more than anything to just be left alone again, but a discovery that large would not go unnoticed.

German Law

After the discovery of the Gurlitt Collection, it became apparent that German law was not equipped to deal with such a situation. Initially, authorities attempted to conceal the discovery until they could decide on what their next move would be. They told as few people as possible, even limiting the art historians to one woman who was expected to provide information on all the artworks. The art that was found was divided into three categories: innocuous artworks believed to have belonged to Hildebrand Gurlitt before the Nazi Era, art forcibly taken from Jewish owners and given to dealers or Nazi officials, and finally the artworks that Hildebrand was expected to sell on behalf of the Nazi Party. The question now was whether Cornelius Gurlitt should be charged. A law passed in 1938 by the Nazis permitting the confiscation of degenerate art had not been repealed, yet Germany was a signatory at the Washington Conference in 1998, which said that museums and public institutions with Raubkunst should return artworks back to their rightful owners. The issue was that due to the Nazi law, the agreement at the Washington Conference did not apply to degenerate art in Germany. On top of that, the statute of limitations on claiming stolen art is 30 years, and Gurlitt had been in possession of the art for over 40. Gurlitt, however, was willing to converse with potential claimants and set up a deal similar to the one he made about The Lion Tamer.


Cornelius Gurlitt died on May 6th 2014, having never been charged with anything. Many of the paintings remain unclaimed.