Give me back ‘Nazi’ treasures, says German art recluse

Gurlitt says  the art, including a Gustav Courbet painting, is his. Picture: AFP
Gurlitt says the art, including a Gustav Courbet painting, is his. Picture: AFP
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ART recluse Cornelius Gurlitt has said he wants the art treasures, valued at nearly £1 billion, taken from his flat by German customs officials, returned to him – despite the fact at least some of the haul is Nazi loot taken from Jews at knock-down prices.

Gurlitt, 80, told Der Spiegel news magazine in a rambling interview that his father Hildebrand – a powerful Nazi-era art dealer once tasked to sell modern art abroad for the regime to buy weapons – had acquired the priceless works legally and that he as his heir sees himself as their rightful owner.

“I will not give anything back voluntarily,” said the eccentric loner who has been charged with no crimes. “I hope this gets resolved soon and I finally get my pictures back.”

Gurlitt, who suffers from a heart condition, said he had given state prosecutors investigating him on charges of tax evasion and misappropriation of assets “enough” documents to prove his innocence.

The art was seized in February last year but the existence of the collection only became known two weeks ago, subjecting Gurlitt to a media firestorm which he detests.

“I am not Boris Becker, what do these people want from me?” he said, referring to the former Wimbledon legend and the legions of journalists who camped outside the Munich flat where the 1,406 paintings by such greats as Picasso, Matisse and Renoir were found.

“I just wanted to live with my paintings,” he added.

Customs officers found Gurlitt crossing the Swiss border by train in 2010 with a large sum in cash, eventually prompting a raid on his apartment early last year. Prosecutors confiscated works by Renaissance and Modernist masters, some long thought lost in the war, others hitherto undocumented.

The authorities valued the collection that includes works by Picasso, Otto Dix, Matisse, Chagall and German expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner at €1 billion (£838.3 million).

While his father sold many of the works he purchased on behalf of the Nazis, he kept a vast trove for himself. Most of the collection was believed lost or destroyed but surfaced when officials went in search of undeclared bank accounts.

At least 500 of the pictures have been identified as being bought at rock-bottom prices from Jews seeking to raise the necessary cash to buy exit visas from Hitler’s Germany.

Gurlitt told Spiegel: “I never had anything to do with acquiring the pictures, only with saving them.” He helped his father in Dresden when they saved the works of art from the Russians in 1945. People should be thankful to him, he said.

He has received a letter informing him that a number of works of art are going to be returned to him. He does not know which ones. But he does not believe the public prosecutor.

Gurlitt admits he has never loved another human being and says that the art that was taken from him is “everything”.

He added: “They could have waited until I was dead to take away the pictures. There is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures.

Gurlitt said he has experienced many goodbyes in his lifetime: his father and mother’s death, his sister’s cancer. “Saying goodbye to my pictures was the most painful of all,” he says. “I hope everything will be cleared up quickly, so I can finally have my pictures back.”