Loner wants to keep Nazi-looted artworks

A combination of paintings found in Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich flat - and he's promising he won't give them up without a fight. Photo / AFP
A combination of paintings found in Cornelius Gurlitt's Munich flat - and he's promising he won't give them up without a fight. Photo / AFP

Cornelius Gurlitt, a German recluse who hid hundreds of paintings believed looted by the Nazis in his Munich flat, says he will not give up the works without a fight, quashing hopes for a quick settlement.

Describing the priceless works as the love of his life, Gurlitt, 80, told Der Spiegel news weekly in an interview that his father, a powerful Nazi-era art dealer, had acquired the paintings legally and that he as his heir is their rightful owner.

"I will not give anything back voluntarily," he told a reporter who said she spent 72 hours with Gurlitt last week to get the first extensive interview with the eccentric loner.

"I hope this gets resolved soon and I finally get my pictures back."

Gurlitt, who suffers from a heart condition, said he had given state prosecutors investigating him on charges of tax evasion and misappropriation of assets "enough" documents to prove his innocence.

He said he had never committed a crime "and even if I did, it would be covered by the statute of limitations".

Gurlitt said he was shocked by all the unwanted attention, including photographers besieging him outside his home and while grocery shopping.

"I am not Boris Becker, what do these people want from me?" he said, referring to the German former tennis great who ran into tax trouble several years ago.

"I just wanted to live with my paintings."

Gurlitt is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of a handful of dealers tasked by the Nazis with selling confiscated, looted and extorted works in exchange for hard currency.

While he sold many of the pieces, he kept a large trove for himself. Most of the collection was believed lost or destroyed but surfaced during a routine customs investigation at Gurlitt's flat in February 2012 and was confiscated.

The more than 1,400 works are currently in storage at a secret location.

German authorities kept the case under wraps, arguing that they did not want to set off a deluge of fraudulent ownership claims for the hoard, which includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Delacroix.

They have declined to estimate the collection's market value.

'They must come back to me'

Jewish families and museums saying that paintings in the stash were taken from them more than 60 years ago have criticised the fact that it took a German magazine, Focus weekly, to bring the spectacular find to light this month.

Focus, which put the hoard's worth at one billion euros, reported that members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's staff and state authorities in Bavaria where Gurlitt lives wanted to cut a deal with him.

It said the criminal probe against him could be dropped if he were willing to cede any claim to the paintings.

But Gurlitt's defiant stance in the Spiegel interview raised serious doubts about whether such an agreement could come together.

He insisted that his father had never bought works from private collectors, that is, embattled Jews in Nazi Germany who were desperate to sell their belongings or forced to give them up.

"It is possible that my father was offered something privately owned but he certainly never accepted. He would have found that unsavoury," he said of his father, crediting him with "rescuing" the treasured artworks at the end of the war from advancing Russian troops and Allied bombs.

Gurlitt railed to Spiegel about officials releasing pictures of the works on a government claims website, www.lostart.de.

"What kind of state is it that displays my private property?" he said, fighting back tears. "They must come back to me."

He said he receives no state pension and has never had health insurance, paying his doctors in cash with proceeds from sold artworks.

Gurlitt said he would have been willing to talk to state prosecutors before they seized the canvases from his home.

"They could have waited with the pictures until I was dead," he said.

"Why didn't they just leave the pictures where they were and only pick up the ones they wanted to investigate?"

He described himself as a "quiet" man who had never been in love.

"I didn't love anything more than those paintings," he said.

- AFP

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