Updated Nov. 17, 2013 2:58 p.m. ET
BERLIN—The Munich man from whom German authorities confiscated an art trove they believe includes Nazi-looted works broke his silence, saying he isn’t willing to return any of the art to previous owners, including pieces taken from Jews.
“I will not speak with them, and I won’t freely give anything back, no, no,” Cornelius Gurlitt, 80, said to German weekly Der Spiegel of reports that government officials are working to negotiate settlements for many of the works. “When I’m dead they can do with them what they want.”
Mr. Gurlitt’s comments—the first he has made on the wartime art stash discovered in his apartment and his intentions—came after Bavaria’s justice minister, whose office is overseeing the investigation, said Friday he hoped to reach a settlement with Mr. Gurlitt to avoid a lengthy legal fight and expedite restitution.
A Glimpse of Discovered Masterpieces
This week, German authorities publicly posted details about 25 works in the trove on the website lostart.de, a German-government database of artwork and other cultural property seized or looted by Nazis or lost by German institutions during the war.
Bavarian officials took the more than 1,400 works of art, including masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Otto Dix, from Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment in early 2012 as part of a tax investigation, but the find was only made public two weeks ago. Officials say they believe more than 500 pieces may have been stolen by the Nazis.
Mr. Gurlitt’s apparent objection to an amicable resolution to the case would complicate the restitution of the works. Under German law, he is the owner of the artwork until proven otherwise. Some experts in German law even question whether authorities had a legal basis to begin disclosing the names of the works in Mr. Gurlitt’s collection to the public as they did with 25 works last week. It is also unclear for how much longer authorities can keep the works.
Mr. Gurlitt said in the interview that he was incensed the German government had published pictures of his artwork.
“What kind of government are they to show my private property?” he said.
The Munich man from whom German authorities confiscated an art trove they believe includes Nazi-looted works broke his silence. Mary Lane joins Lunch Break with details. Photo: AP.
Even if it could be proved that certain works were stolen, the statute of limitations for any crime that may have been committed in connection with the collection ran out decades ago, German legal experts caution.
Germany has come under international pressure, including from Stuart Eizenstat, Secretary of State John Kerry’s special adviser on Holocaust Issues who helped draft the international norms for wartime art restitution, to lift the statute of limitations in such cases. Germany has signed non-binding international agreements governing the return of artwork stolen by the Nazis. While German government officials argue the guidelines apply only to museums, and not individuals who own works once looted by the Nazis, Mr. Eizenstat disagrees.
In the interview, Mr. Gurlitt described losing the pictures as more painful than the death of his father in a 1956 car crash, his mother’s death, or his sister becoming ill with cancer.
“I’ve never loved anything more than my pictures in my life,” including another person, he said. “The pictures are somewhere in a basement now, and I am alone.”
Mr. Gurlitt told Der Spiegel that about 30 government officials came to his apartment while he was still in his pajamas one morning and instructed him to sit in a chair and watch for four days while they packed up his paintings and other belongings.
They later sent a psychological counselor to visit him once to ensure he wasn’t suicidal, an experience he described as “horrible” and “dreadful,” the magazine reported.
In the past two weeks, he has only left his apartment twice and has continuously had nightmares, he said.
“What do these people want from me? I’m actually rather quiet. I only wanted to live with my pictures,” said Mr. Gurlitt who referred to his father, a former art dealer for the Nazis, as a hero for saving the works from the Nazis, the Americans and the Russians.
Mr. Gurlitt said that his father had bought the works from museums and private dealers, not from individuals.
But an unpublished essay written in November 1955 by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, appears to contradict that.
In the letter, held in the city archives of Düsseldorf, Germany, and published by Der Spiegel, the elder Mr. Gurlitt describes the Hamburg art gallery he founded during the Nazi’s reign and the origins of many of its works.
“Numerous new works of art went through my hands. They came from the painters, from emigrating customers and friends, from people who had the foresight to offload their pictures,” he said, describing how the SS would burn many works of art they found worthless. “I was able to save many of these pictures from their downfall,” he wrote.
After the war, the senior Mr. Gurlitt was able to retain his collection, he wrote in the Düsseldorf document, noting that the works returned to him by Allied forces after they confiscated them to investigate their origins wasn’t his full collection. He had stored part of his collection in the wall of a water mill and later retrieved those works. He also said he bribed a Russian soldier on a rainy night with two bottles of schnapps to bring a third trove to him in western Germany from Saxony, behind the Iron Curtain.
The junior Mr. Gurlitt says he has dedicated his life to living with the pictures that his father owned. He moved around frequently as a child, he said, always surrounded by the pictures. He graduated from high school in Düsseldorf and studied art history at the University of Cologne. Always painfully shy, he preferred living with his parents or his sister, he told Der Spiegel. When Mr. Gurlitt was 27, he moved with his mother to Munich.
The younger Mr. Gurlitt described himself in the interview as a recluse who had never used the Internet and was confused as to why the German government wouldn’t return his pictures.
“If I were guilty they would put me in prison,” he said, adding he doesn’t have a lawyer.
He became the subject of a Bavarian tax probe after authorities in autumn 2010 searched him as part of a routine border check on a train from Switzerland to Germany and noted he was carrying €9,000 ($ 12,140) in cashjust below the €10,000 legal limit, prosecutors have said. Their suspicion was further aroused upon seeing that he didn’t have a German bank account, social or health insurance and that his address wasn’t registered with the city of Munich, a requirement for all German residences.
Write to Mary M. Lane at email@example.com