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Cornelius Gurlitt, collector who hoarded massive art trove with Nazi connections, dead at 81

BERLIN  — Cornelius Gurlitt, a reclusive German collector whose long-secret hoard of well over 1,000 artworks triggered an international uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis, died today. He was 81.

Gurlitt’s spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, said that the collector died at his apartment in Munich, where he had asked to return after being hospitalized for major heart surgery. He was “in nursing care and taken care of in recent weeks around the clock,” Holzinger said.

On the question of who might inherit from Gurlitt, Holzinger said Gurlitt has living relatives, but wouldn’t immediately say who they are.

Gurlitt was thrust into the public spotlight in November when authorities, following a report by German magazine Focus, disclosed that they had seized 1,280 works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall from the Munich apartment more than a year earlier.

They had discovered the works while investigating suspected import tax evasion.

Some of the pieces, by Matisse, Chagall and Otto Dix, were previously unknown, not listed in the detailed inventories compiled by art scholars.

Gurlitt had inherited the collection of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis and who died in 1956.

German authorities, facing criticism from Jewish groups and art experts for keeping the hoard secret for so long, quickly moved to publicize details of paintings online and put together a task force to speed their identification; they said at least 458 of the works may have been stolen from their owners by the Nazis.

Separately, representatives for Gurlitt later secured a further 238 artworks at a dilapidated house he owned in Salzburg, Austria. Gurlitt was never under investigation in Austria and those works weren’t seized by authorities.

Gurlitt stayed out of sight after news of his collection broke, barely talking to media, and was apparently overwhelmed by the publicity. In January, his representatives said they were considering claims for some of the works and that he was seeking “fair and just solutions” to the case.

“So much has happened in the past weeks and months, and is still happening,” he wrote on a newly created website shortly afterward. “I only wanted to live with my pictures, in peace and calm.”

Gurlitt was born in Hamburg in 1932 and came from a prominent German family of artists, composers and collectors, but little is known about his life beyond his position as the heir of his father Hildebrand’s art collection.

When U.S. investigators questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt after the end of World War II about the origins of his collection, they were doubtful whether all the pieces really belonged to him but eventually decided that he was the rightful owner of most of them.

After his father’s 1956 death in a car accident, Cornelius Gurlitt lived together with his mother in Munich until she died in 1968. He reportedly lived a reclusive life, making a living by selling paintings from time to time.

Experts who examined the pieces seized in Munich said they included both “degenerate art” and looted art.

The Nazis took so-called degenerate art — mostly avant-garde modern art, such as expressionism — from museums and public institutions because it was deemed a corrupting influence on the German people. Looted art was stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell under duress during the Third Reich. For the heirs of those collectors, the discovery raised hopes of recovering art, but the slow release of information by the German government stirred frustration.

After much back and forth, Gurlitt eventually agreed last month to a deal with the German government, under which hundreds of works owned by the collector would be checked for a Nazi-era past while staying in government hands.

Prosecutors who initially confiscated all the works of art they found at his apartment then announced that they were releasing the rest of the collection. Gurlitt’s lawyers had argued that the prosecutors acted disproportionately in seizing the entire collection, and that the art wasn’t relevant as evidence for prosecutors’ suspicion of import tax evasion.

Monika Gruetters, Germany’s culture minister, said today that Gurlitt’s decision to work with authorities deserved “recognition and respect.”

“It will remain to Cornelius Gurlitt’s credit that he ... sent an exemplary signal for the search for fair and just solutions with this avowal of moral responsibility,” she said.

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