Cornelius Gurlitt (art collector)

Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt (28 December 1932 – 6 May 2014) was a German art collector. The son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era dealer of looted art, Gurlitt was discovered to have concealed a stash of artworks known as the Gurlitt trove or Gurlitt Collection, several of which have been proven to have been looted from Jews by Nazis.[1][2][3]

Cornelius Gurlitt
Cornelius Gurlitt
Born(1932-12-28)28 December 1932
Hamburg, Germany
Died6 May 2014(2014-05-06) (aged 81)
Munich, Germany
OccupationArt collector

Early lifeEdit

Gurlitt's parents were the art dealer and previous museum director Hildebrand Gurlitt, who worked for the Nazis selling looted art, and his wife, Helene Hanke.[4] He grew up in the Dammtor district of Hamburg with his sister Renate (later known as Benita), who was born there in 1935.[5]

After attending primary school in Hamburg, he went to secondary school in Dresden until the city was destroyed by allied bombing in 1945, when Gurlitt was 13. The family moved to rural Aschbach, then in 1946 Gurlitt and his sister were sent to the private Odenwaldschule at Heppenheim for a short period until he joined his family again, now settled in Düsseldorf, where he took his school leaving examination in 1953 at the age of 20.[6]

Death of Gurlitt's father and aftermathEdit

Three years later, while Gurlitt was enrolled at Cologne University studying art history, his father Hildebrand was killed in a road accident, leaving to his wife Helene the custodianship of his extensive and valuable, but generally little known, private art collection. In 1961, Helene bought two small apartments in the Schwabing suburb of Munich, while Gurlitt moved to Austria, building himself a small house in Aigen, a relatively affluent suburb of Salzburg.

His mother died in January 1968, after which time Gurlitt divided his time between one of the two fifth-floor Munich apartments (which his sister had inherited) and his Salzburg house; he never married and lived alone for the next four decades, surrounded by the art collection he had inherited upon his mother's death. He lived modestly, drove an inexpensive Volkswagen car, and was a virtual recluse, maintaining as little contact with the outside world as possible, with the exception of regular visits from his sister Benita.

In addition to possessing a German passport, he had taken out Austrian citizenship and was registered in that country for tax purposes. However, by the 2000s, his Salzburg house was becoming neglected and Gurlitt, whose health was failing, visited it less frequently, spending more of his time residing in the Munich apartment.[7]

Since he had never had any other source of income, after exhaustion of any other money inherited from his mother, Gurlitt appears to have lived by selling the occasional painting from his father's collection, the proceeds being paid into an account in Zurich, Switzerland, to which Gurlitt would travel every four to six weeks and withdraw €9,000 to pay his living costs.[8] The existence, quality and extent of the collection that he had inherited remained largely secret, unknown to his acquaintances and the public at large, although according to one dealer was "common knowledge among dealers in southern Germany".[9]

Discovery of collectionEdit

In September 2010, Gurlitt, then aged 77, was stopped on a train returning from Zurich to Munich and found to have €9,000 in his possession, which he said came from selling some paintings he had had in his possession in 1978. He made regular trips to the Swiss art dealer Eberhard Kornfeld who paid him in cash or by cheque.[10] The amount was below the legally allowed limit to be carried between countries in cash but aroused the suspicion of authorities that he might be involved in some sort of art fraud selling stolen artworks on the black market, on which he was paying no tax in Germany.

German customs officials obtained a warrant to search his sister's Munich apartment where he was living and discovered 1,406 works of art initially reported as worth €1 billion (this figure was subsequently revised downwards to some tens of millions of euros). The collection included works by Renoir, Matisse, Otto Dix and many other famous artists. These works were all confiscated by officials of the Augsburg Prosecutor's office, although the legality of that action was later challenged in court.[11]

Gurlitt had no lawyer at the time, and his repeated requests for the collection to be returned to him on the basis that he had committed no crime went unheeded. The Augsburg Prosecutor's investigation, meanwhile, proceeded very slowly and out of public sight until the find was leaked to the press and sensationally reported by the German magazine Focus on 3 November 2013.[12] News of the discovery was reported worldwide.[13]

In December 2013, a local court in Munich appointed a German lawyer, Christoph Edel, to look after Gurlitt's affairs for the next six months, under a scheme which provides legal representation for old or infirm clients. Edel filed lawsuits first against unidentified officials who had leaked information on the discovery to the press, then on the Prosecutor's office for return of the collection, which, however, Gurlitt was never to see again. Gurlitt also revealed to Edel the existence of a second portion of the collection at his Salzburg house, which Edel took steps to secure and remove to a new location on Gurlitt's behalf; these items, more than 250 pieces including works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Liebermann, de Toulouse-Lautrec, Courbet, Cézanne, Munch, and Manet, were never touched by the German authorities.[14]

Initially, Gurlitt maintained that all of the works in his collection had been acquired legally by his father and that no suggestions that the collection contained looted art would be entertained. However, he subsequently agreed in 2014 that if indeed the collection did include looted items, he would return these to the rightful heirs of the families from which they had been stolen, thereby conforming to the (non binding) 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, although he was under no legal obligation to do so: under German law, any claims to restitution of looted art would have expired after a 30-year period, long expired by 2010.[15]

Already in 2011, he had consigned one picture, Max Beckmann's The Lion Tamer, for sale to the Cologne auction house Lempertz, where it was recognized by Mike Hulton, heir to a Jewish family from which the work had originally been stolen prior to World War II, although there was no suggestion that Hildebrand Gurlitt had any involvement in the original theft. Representatives of the gallery met with Cornelius and then negotiated an amicable settlement with Hulton to share the profits of the sale, the picture eventually selling for €864,000.[16]

Death and subsequent eventsEdit

Following a number of years of ill health, Gurlitt died of heart failure on 6 May 2014 at the age of 81. The will he wrote shortly before his death unexpectedly named a small museum in Switzerland, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern (German: Kunstmuseum Bern), as his "sole heir". People close to Gurlitt told an American newspaper that he decided to give the collection to a foreign institution because he felt that Germany had treated him and his father badly.[17] The legacy included the items that Gurlitt had kept in Munich and also in Salzburg, which German authorities had not confiscated because their remit did not extend to property held in Austria, plus his properties in the two locations, which the Bern Museum subsequently announced they would be selling in order to offset some of the costs associated with accepting the bequest.[18]

The will stipulated that the museum would be required to research the provenance of the paintings and make restitution as appropriate.[19] The museum decided to accept those works, none of which are suggested to represent the proceeds of Nazi-era looting, and enter into a joint agreement with German and Swiss authorities about the handling of this bequest. The will was challenged by one of Gurlitt's cousins based on a psychiatric report concluding that Gurlitt suffered from dementia, schizoid personality disorder, and a delusional disorder at the time he wrote his will.[20] The challenge was defeated in court and the Bern bequest permitted to stand.

Some of the artworks have been established as being previously looted and have been returned to the heirs of the legitimate owners, notably a portrait by Matisse restored to the heirs of French art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Another major painting from the collection, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), by Max Liebermann, was returned to the heirs of the German-Jewish industrialist and art collector David Friedmann,[21] and sold at auction in June 2015.[22] By late 2014, Carl Spitzweg's Musical Pair had also been identified for return to the relevant heir of the original owner.[23]

A small number of additional items have continued to be identified as looted and have been returned to the original owners' heirs where known; for ongoing details, see the Gurlitt Collection article. Exhibitions of some of the works from the collection went on show in November 2017.[24][25][26]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Rea, Naomi (2020-01-22). "Less Than a Month After the Louvre Hired a Nazi Loot Expert to Investigate Its Collection, She Found 10 Ill-Gotten Works Hiding in Plain Sight". Artnet News. Archived from the original on 2021-06-13. Retrieved 2022-02-20. Today, January 22, Germany is handing over three works from the collection to Dorville's heirs after they submitted a claim for their return. Two paintings by Jean-Louis Forain, a watercolor titled Lady in an Evening Gown and the oil painting Portrait of a Lady in Profile, were located within the hoard of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt
  2. ^ Welle (, Deutsche. "Gurlitt Collection: Last of 14 Nazi-looted artworks auctioned | DW | 24.11.2021". DW.COM. Retrieved 2022-02-20. Among the some 1,500 artworks found in Cornelius Gurlitt's hoard, 14 were proven to have been looted under the Nazis.
  3. ^ "Jewish art dealer's family to recover Matisse painting looted by Nazis". the Guardian. 2015-05-14. Retrieved 2022-02-20. Seated Woman, painted in 1921, was taken from Paul Rosenberg as he fled Germany, but was discovered in Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich flat
  4. ^ "Documents Reveal How Looted Nazi Art Was Restored to Dealer". Archived from the original on 2016-08-17. Retrieved 2021-02-05.
  5. ^ "It Turns Out Cornelius Gurlitt's Sister Hid Nazi-Looted Art, Too, as Four Drawings Are Returned to Jewish Heirs". artnet News. 2018-09-11. Retrieved 2021-02-05.
  6. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 132-136.
  7. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 147-149.
  8. ^ Hickley, Catherine. "Gurlitt's Swiss dealer breaks silence on his client". SWI Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  9. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 150.
  10. ^ Hickley, Catherine. "Gurlitt's Swiss dealer breaks silence on his client". SWI Archived from the original on 2021-12-10. Retrieved 2022-02-20. In his first interview about the reclusive Gurlitt – who died in 2014, a year after his secret trove of art first seized headlines - Kornfeld told Swiss Public Television, SRF, that he paid Gurlitt in cash or by cheque for the artworks he sold. Gurlitt, who had never had a job, needed the money to live on and to pay for medical treatment.
  11. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 188.
  12. ^ "Fahnder entdecken 1500 Werke von Picasso, Chagall und weiteren Künstlern". Focus. 3 November 2013. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  13. ^ Smale, Alison (4 November 2013). "Report of Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an Uproar". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
  14. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 186-192
  15. ^ Hickley, 2015: p. 192.
  16. ^ Hickley, 2015: pp. 153-154.
  17. ^ Lane, Mary M. (November 20, 2014). "Swiss Museum Close to Accepting Trove of Nazi Art". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
  18. ^ "Swiss museum that inherited Gurlitt trove selling properties". The Times of Israel. 7 June 2017. Retrieved 16 June 2019.
  19. ^ Lane, p. A12.
  20. ^ "Gurlitt-Erbin will um Kunstwerke kämpfen". Tages Anzeiger. 17 November 2014. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
  21. ^ Eddy, Melissa (May 15, 2015). "Matisse From Gurlitt Collection Is Returned to Jewish Art Dealer’s Heirs". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-12-19.
  22. ^ Holmes, Ruth (June 24, 2015). "Nazi-looted painting from Munich fetches close to $3m". Times of Israel. Retrieved 2016-12-19.
  23. ^, Catherine Hickley, in Berlin. "Gurlitt's heavy legacy goes to Swiss museum". SWI
  24. ^ Connolly, Kate (October 27, 2017). "Works hoarded by son of Nazi art dealer to go on public display". The Guardian – via
  25. ^ "Cornelius Gurlitt's art hoard finally gets first public showing".
  26. ^ Bern 7, Museum of Fine Arts Bern, Hodlerstrasse 8-12, CH-3000. "Gurlitt: Status Report". Museum of Fine Arts Bern.


  • Hickley, Catherine. "The Munich Art Hoard: Hitler's Dealer and his Secret Legacy." Thames & Hudson, London, 2015, 272 pp. ISBN 9780500292570
  • Collins, Jacob R. "The Gurlitt Trove: Its Past, Present and Future." Undergraduate Thesis, University of Vermont, 2016, 54 pp. Available online at [1]