Recluse who kept Nazi art hoard in his Munich apartment dies

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 1:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 May, 2014, 1:45am

The elderly recluse whose apartment in Munich contained a secret art hoard, including masterpieces looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners in the second world war, has died after a heart operation.

Authorities stumbled upon Cornelius Gurlitt's trove of paintings and drawings by the likes of Marc Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso in 2012 after a routine check on a train from Switzerland turned up wads of cash, triggering a tax probe. His spokesman Stephan Holzinger said Gurlitt, 81, had decided to return home after a complicated heart operation and spend his final days in the Munich flat that once housed part of his beloved collection.

Gurlitt's collection was assembled by his father, an art dealer put in charge of selling what Adolf Hitler called "degenerate" art to help fund the Nazis' war effort. Now worth about €1 billion (HK$10.7 billion), the hoard remained undetected for decades in the Munich flat and a house over the Austrian border in Salzburg. Gurlitt sold pieces occasionally to finance his quiet lifestyle and his health care.

He had been co-operating with authorities to determine if any of the 1,280 artworks had been stolen or extorted from their original owners, many of them Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Gurlitt agreed to let a task force of art experts research works whose provenance remained in doubt while others were returned to him.