Cornelius Gurlitt, identified in obituaries as a “Nazi-era art hoarder,” died this morning in Munich of heart trouble. Gurlitt’s cache of more than 1,400 important modern works, inherited from his art-dealer father—including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Manet, and Renoir—was discovered in 2012. It was not made public until November 2013. Although classified as “second-degree mixed-race Jewish,” Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of three dealers given official sanction by Hitler to peddle “degenerate art” in other countries, with the profits going to Germany. And although Gurlitt was required to return a number of works to their former owners, the majority of the collection is thought to have been acquired “legally.”
Isolated from the outside world, Gurlitt stopped watching television in 1963, booked hotel rooms months in advance by post when he had to travel, and never used the Internet, according to Spiegel magazine. His collection was discovered in a raid after authorities became suspicious when he was found carrying 9,000 euros during a random search at the Swiss border in 2010. He was returning from a visit to Bern to sell some artwork there.
It is unclear what will happen to the collection, although art historians will apparently continue to investigate the works’ provenance and post images of them.
By chance, New York’s Neue Galerie is currently hosting a wildly popular show titled “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” which attempts to replicate, in part, the famous traveling exhibition that the Nazis sent across Germany and Austria, as both cautionary lesson and moneymaking venture. The images assembled by the Neue—by Kirschner, Grosz, Klee, Kokoschka, and many more—represent a triumph of curation and international cooperation. But Gurlitt’s cache might have changed and broadened the scope of the show considerably—a thought that’s enough to give you chills.
When I saw the show at the Neue, it was packed, with lines out the door. But it was collegial; we were all so eager to have a brush with darkness, to be part of its routing, and then to have a Klimtorte in the magnificent restaurant, which is modeled on a Viennese coffee house. A woman who entered ahead of me said that she and her sister had planned their vacation from San Francisco specifically to see the show.
Gurlitt was apparently confused by the uproar caused by his collection. He said in 2013, “What do these people want from me? I’m just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures.”