German art collector claims he hoarded paintings out of love

The recluse discovered with 1,5000 paintings, possibly stolen by Nazis, spoke to the press for the first time

Topics: Nazi Germany, WWII, Art, paintings, ,

The 80-year-old German recluse who was discovered to have been hoarding over 1,400 paintings, believed to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis, revealed that he did so out of love for the art.

A reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel spent three days with Cornelius Gurlitt, the collector, and concluded that Gurlitt had lost touch with reality over decades spent protecting his father’s collection. Gurlitt, who spoke to the paintings and said that losing them was more painful to him than the deaths of his parents and sister, told the reporter ”there is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures.”

From Der Spiegel:

He says he doesn’t understand why the public prosecutor’s office is making such a fuss about an old issue. The raid and the assault on his world happened a year and a half ago. “Now the pictures are in a basement somewhere, and I’m alone. Why didn’t they leave the pictures there and just pick up the ones they wanted to check? Then it wouldn’t be so empty now.”

He talks a lot about the old days during the three-day trip, the days when he had no responsibility and no decisions to make. In those days, his father was still in control of the situation, a man who fought for modern art and promoted art as a whole, but who then did business with the Nazis, selling so-called degenerate art abroad, which probably included stolen art. Apparently his father kept some of that art for himself.

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Gurlitt denied that his father ever purchased anything from a private collection, and insisted that his father only collaborated with the Nazis to save the paintings from being burned. His motivation for hoarding the paintings, collectively estimated to be worth $1.35 billion, wasn’t money, he said, and it never occurred to him that he could have returned them to help make restitution for Nazi war crimes.

The collection, which includes works by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, was seized by authorities in February 2012, though the public only learned of it two weeks ago. It’s unclear whether German authorities will be legally able to hold on to the art, 30-year statute of limitations for most criminal prosecutions. Gurlitt has yet to be charged with any crime, and he made it clear that he wants the paintings back:

Gurlitt sees his paintings in the newspapers. He’s appalled. “What kind of state is this that puts my private property on display?” he asks. Gurlitt has tears in his eyes. He whispers: “They have to come back to me.”

…It’s painful to see Gurlitt being slowly consumed by despair. “They have it all wrong,” he says. “I won’t speak with them, and I won’t voluntarily give back anything, no, no.”"

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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