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Reclusive German art collector Gurlitt dies at 81

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 6, 2014 at 12:49 pm •  Published: May 6, 2014

BERLIN (AP) — Cornelius Gurlitt's long-secret hoard of 1,280 major artworks set off an international uproar last year over the fate of art looted by the Nazis. Now his death has triggered a new round of speculation over who will eventually own his unparalleled collection.

A spokesman for the reclusive German collector, who died Tuesday at age 81 at his apartment in Munich, said Gurlitt had living relatives but he would not say who they are.

It was also not immediately clear whether Gurlitt had written a will or whether a Munich court would appoint a curator of estate, which is often done in Germany if there are open questions surrounding an inheritance.

After much back and forth, Gurlitt eventually agreed last month to a deal with the German government under which hundreds of works he owned would be checked for possible Nazi-era pasts while staying in government hands. A spokeswoman for the Bavarian Justice Ministry told The Associated Press on Tuesday that deal would be binding on all possible heirs.

Initially, Gurlitt had insisted that all of the art work belonged to him and nobody else.

"Everybody involved — the authorities as well as private people who think some of the art may have once belonged to their families — wants to know more than anything what's going to happen to the collection," said Markus Stoetzel, a German lawyer specializing on the restitution of Nazi-looted art.

"The only thing we know for sure at this point is that the painful process of recovering art taken under Nazi terror will be further delayed," he added.

Gurlitt was thrust into the public spotlight in November when authorities, following a report by German magazine Focus, disclosed that they had seized 1,280 works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall from his Munich apartment more than a year earlier.

They had discovered the works while investigating Gurlitt for suspected import tax evasion.

Some of the pieces — by Matisse, Chagall and Otto Dix — were previously unknown, not listed in the detailed inventories compiled by art scholars.

Gurlitt had inherited the collection of paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis and who died in 1956.

German authorities, facing criticism from Jewish groups and art experts for keeping the hoard secret for so long, quickly moved to publicize details of paintings online and put together a task force to speed their identification. They said at least 458 of the works may have been stolen from their owners by the Nazis.

Separately, representatives for Gurlitt later secured a further 238 artworks that were at a dilapidated house he owned in Salzburg, Austria. Gurlitt was never under investigation in Austria and those works weren't seized by authorities. It is not clear where those artworks are now.

Gurlitt stayed out of sight after news of his collection broke, barely talking to media, and was apparently overwhelmed by the publicity. In January, his representatives said they were considering Jewish families' claims for some of the works and said he was seeking "fair and just solutions" to the case.

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