CORRECTED: Heir to Nazi-era art hoard Cornelius Gurlitt dead

6th May 2014, Comments 0 comments

The reclusive German son of a Nazi-era art dealer who hoarded hundreds of priceless paintings in his Munich flat for decades died Tuesday aged 81, a spokesman said.

Cornelius Gurlitt died "in his apartment in Schwabing, in the presence of a doctor," Stephan Holzinger said in a statement, referring to an upscale district of Munich.

Holzinger said Gurlitt had recently undergone serious heart surgery and after spending a week in hospital, asked to return to his home where he had lived among long-lost masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall until he came to the attention of the authorities two years ago.

He said Gurlitt had received round-the-clock care in his home until his death.

Gurlitt had last month struck an accord with the German government to help track down the rightful owners of pieces in his trove of 1,280 artworks, including Jews whose property was stolen or extorted under the Third Reich.

The works, whose value has been estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, were seized in February 2012 when they were discovered by chance in the course of a small-scale tax evasion investigation.

Holzinger said that probe would now end with Gurlitt's death.

Gurlitt's father Hildebrand acquired most of the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, when he worked as an art dealer tasked by the Nazis with selling works taken from Jewish families and avant-garde art seized from German museums that the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate".

- An eccentric villain -

The case only came to public attention when Focus news weekly published an article on it late last year, sparking fierce international criticism that German authorities kept the case under wraps for so long.

Under the April accord, a government-appointed international task force of art experts will have one year to investigate the provenance of all the works in Gurlitt's Munich collection.

Artworks subject to ownership claims after that deadline will be held by a trust until the cases are resolved.

The deal Gurlitt struck was voluntary, however, and it was not immediately clear whether he left a will or whether an heir could contest the agreement.

Gurlitt's public image evolved dramatically in the months since his case came to light.

He was initially cast in the German media as an eccentric villain, and told Der Spiegel magazine in a notorious interview last November that he would never give up his collection without a fight.

"I will not give anything back voluntarily," he said. "No, no, no."

But with the help of a revolving cast of lawyers and advisors, Gurlitt eventually softened his stance and began cooperating with the German government to reach an agreement that was also welcomed by Jewish groups.

German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters praised Gurlitt's eventual decision to own up to the historical burden of his spectacular hoard.

"It will remain a credit to Cornelius Gurlitt that he, as a private individual, set an example in the search for fair and just solutions with his commitment to moral responsibility," she said.

"He rightly received recognition and respect for this step."

© 2014 AFP

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