Cornelius Gurlitt, the infamous son of a Nazi art dealer, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. Gurlitt shocked the world when German police found 1,280 works from venerated artists like Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, in his Munich apartment, many of which were believed to be stolen Holocaust-era Nazi loot. The German government had been holding the works, researching their provenance in an attempt to return them to their rightful owners but Gurlitt been fighting to have these works returned to his possession. Unless proven otherwise, the works remain Gurlitt’s property. With very little progress made in discovering the provenance of these works, legal pressures had been building to return the works to Gurlitt.
Provenance is particularly difficulty in Nazi looting cases due to the spotty records available. The worked were looted mostly from Jews before being sent to concentration camps, and those who survived do not have the records or other proof of ownership necessary to make a claim. Most records related to these works were destroyed during the Bombing of Dresden, the city where the Gurlitt’s family lived, making the process even more difficult. In four raids between February 13-15th 1945, over 1200 heavy bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices on the city destroying over 6.5 km2 of the city and killing 25,000 people. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrandt managed to move the works out of the city before the bombing. Hildebrandt Gurlitt was caught at the end of the war but managed to keep existence of his collection secret by convincing his interrogators that his art collection had been destroyed.
So far, only seven works have been returned to their rightful owners.
But by far the greatest impediment to retuning the works lies in German law itself; under German law, the works would not have to be returned to their original owners because the statute of limitations had expired. However, this case has brought this problem to the forefront and now some in the German government are calling for changes to the law.
Unfortunately, without those changes and with such little progress on restitution, the public prosecutor had been under pressure to release the works back to Gurlitt. Of the 1280 works found in Gurlitt’s apartment, 350 were likely to have been owned by the Gurlitt family prior to Hitler coming to power. While provenance on the rest is unknown, only seven restitution claims have been settled so far. So in early April, the public prosecutor finally gave in to Gurlitt’s demands but as part of the deal, Gurlitt agreed to allow a German task force of experts to continue examining the provenance of the works for another year.
Now, with Gurlitt’s death the works are once again in legal limbo. He had no known heirs; his sister Benita died childless in 2012 and Gurlitt himself was never married nor had any children. There were no tax records, bank accounts, official health records or even a telephone number in his name. His only income appeared to come from selling the occasional work of art.
Under Bavarian law, if no valid will or contract of inheritance is provided, then the court will be appointed to decide who, if anyone, should inherit the property. For now, the 1280 works are being held at a secret location, for security reasons, along with an additional 238 works that were found Gurlitt’s second home in Saltzburg, Austria.