Interview with a Phantom: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares the Secrets of His Pictures

Der Spiegel 17 November 2013

By Õzlem Gezer

Photo Gallery: Cornelius Gurlitt and His Art Treasures Photos

Cornelius Gurlitt hoarded art treasures his father obtained under dubious circumstances in the Nazi era. The reclusive 80-year-old has given SPIEGEL the first interview since news of their discovery broke two weeks ago. He says the pictures are the love of his life and must be returned.

Part 1: Cornelius Gurlitt Shares the Secrets of His Pictures

No one had ever seen Cornelius Gurlitt in his nightshirt before, until a day in February 2012, when they broke the lock and marched in -- the strangers, as he calls them -- the customs investigators and officials with the Augsburg public prosecutor's office.

His apartment was his world. But now these strangers had entered. There were many of them, perhaps 30, and they didn't go away. Instead, they spent four days wrapping up his life in blankets, packing it into cardboard boxes and carrying it away -- well over 1,000 works of art.

Meanwhile, Gurlitt was expected to sit in a corner and remain quiet. He complied with their wishes, watching as they removed Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" from the wall, a work that had hung there for decades, and took the Chagall from the locked wooden cabinet.

They left nothing behind, not even the small suitcase containing his favorite pictures, a collection of works on paper. For decades, Gurlitt had unpacked the drawings each evening to admire them. Now they were gone and Gurlitt was alone.

The only other person who came to see him was a woman from a counseling service who had been sent by the strangers. He uses words like "gruesome" and "horrible" to describe this visit, in which he was expected to talk about his feelings. He assured her that he had no intention of killing himself and asked her to leave.

Since that day, Gurlitt has been alone in his bare apartment, in a white-painted building in Munich, a city he calls a prison. And ever since the German newsweekly Focus uncovered the confiscation of his collection two weeks ago, the world's press has been gathering downstairs, outside the front door of his apartment block. Whenever he leaves the building, he is inundated with camera flashes, as if he were a war criminal. Strangers are constantly knocking on his door and sliding letters through the mail slot.

The works are a sensational treasure trove, including paintings by Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The mysterious collection stems from the estate of his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art critic, museum director and art dealer who died in 1956, one of the men who established modern art in Germany and, after 1933, did business with the Nazis.

Photo Gallery
20  Photos
Photo Gallery: Munich Nazi Art Stash Revealed

One of the issues the discovery raises is whether Hildebrand Gurlitt wrongfully obtained the paintings. At this point no one, from the public prosecutor's office to art experts to politicians, knows how many of the works rightfully belong to the son. Cornelius Gurlitt, who just wants to get away from this place, where he now feels like a hunted person, doesn't know either.

So many pictures, so many mysteries. Is it stolen art? Degenerate art? Who owns them? What brought them to the apartment in Munich's Schwabing neighborhood? And how should authorities handle all the issues related to the discovery? What about the heirs who want the works of art returned to them? And how does one address the injustices committed at the time, or the injustice that could be committed today against Gurlitt, the heir of a collection with dubious origins?

'What Do These People Want From Me?'

He spoke to his paintings. They were his friends, the loyal companions that didn't exist in his real life. He considered it is his life's mission to protect his father's treasure, and over the decades he lost touch with reality.

It is last Tuesday, and Gurlitt is sitting on a German ICE high-speed train, in a compartment designed for people with children. This is the second time he has left his apartment since the revelations in Focus. The first time, he went shopping and was hounded by photographers. After that, he spent 10 days in his near-dark living room and did nothing. He says that he could hardly sleep, and when he did, he was plagued by nightmares. Sometimes he would switch the radio on and then off again. The only thing they had left him was the broken lock to his apartment door.

Gurlitt is traveling to see his doctor in a small southern German city. He is drinking tea from a coffee cup. Occasionally he runs his hand over his white hair. The trip -- a sad journey -- takes three days.

"I'm not Boris Becker," he says. "What do these people want from me? I'm just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures. Why are they photographing me for these newspapers, which normally only feature photos of shady characters?"

Gurlitt doesn't understand why people are so interested in what he calls his personal property. He mentions the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet. His face is pale and there are tears in his blue eyes. He takes a cloth handkerchief from his right coat pocket and blows his nose.

'Fatal Misfortune'

"I simply didn't expect them," he says. He means the strangers. Still, Gurlitt says he also bears some of the blame for this "fatal misfortune," having to say goodbye to his father's legacy. He should have protected it the way his father did, he says, against being burned by the Nazis, against the bombs, against the Russians and against the Americans. For Cornelius Gurlitt, his father was a hero, and he now feels like a failure.

Gurlitt spent a lifetime being a son and an heir, making it his mission to preserve his father's legacy. He says it never occurred to him that the art he kept in his 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) apartment, art that perhaps wasn't entirely his, could be used to help make amends for what the Nazis had done.

"If I had lived somewhere else, all of this simply wouldn't have happened," he says -- somewhere far away from the Swiss border, where customs inspectors noticed him on a train in 2010; and far away from the people of Munich, who he had never really trusted. The current mess is his mother's fault, he says, because she was the one who had wanted to move to Schwabing after his father died.

She had dreamed of a Bohemian lifestyle, and of affluent people who weren't interested in other people's money. Cornelius was 27 at the time, a young man who didn't like making decisions, and unlike his father, he wasn't a man of action, not a leader but someone who liked to be led. He trusted his mother, who bought two apartments on Artur Kutscher Platz. Today, 53 years later, Gurlitt says: "She was wrong."

Munich is the "source of all evil," says Gurlitt. "This is where the movement was founded," he says, referring to Hitler's Nazi movement. He keeps repeating the same sentence, and when he does his quivering voice becomes louder. He lifts his right index finger, holds onto the table on the ICE train with his other hand and raises his eyebrows. Gurlitt talks about the beginnings of the Nazi Party in 1920, and about the speech Adolf Hitler gave in the Munich Hofbräuhaus, in which he announced the party's manifesto. In Gurlitt's opinion, evil still appears to reside in the city.

Gurlitt seems trapped in another time. He stopped watching television when Germany's second public television network was launched, the "new station" with its trademark Mainzelmännchen cartoon characters. That was in 1963. He books his hotel rooms months in advance by post, with letters written on a typewriter and signed with a fountain pen, which include the request to send a taxi to pick him up from the train station. His world is slow and quiet.

'There Is Nothing I Have Loved More'

He is amazed by telephones that display the caller's phone number. He knows that it's possible to search for things on the Internet, but he has never done it. He has spent his life living with his pictures. He lacks interaction with other people, and he has gathered his life experiences from books.

He talks about Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," a short story about an explorer who witnesses condemned prisoners, who don't know what crime they have committed, being tortured and killed on a remote island. He says that the emptying of his apartment was similarly tragic.

The ICE crosses the Munich city line. "Now it's a little quieter," he says. "Finally." He hasn't felt well in the last 10 days. Gurlitt, who turns 81 at the end of December, says that he always dreamed of living until he was 90. "There are people who are still climbing mountains at 97, but I won't live to be that old," he says. "At least they could have waited until I was dead to take away the pictures."

He doesn't understand what people want from him. He says the public prosecutor's office has the pictures now, so people should go there if they want to see the works or find out something about them. He knows a lot about their origins, he says, but he prefers to keep that to himself -- like a love affair that needs to be guarded. "And there is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures."

When asked whether he has ever been in love with a human being, he giggles and says: "Oh, no."

Part 2: Childhood in Nazi Germany

Gurlitt has experienced many goodbyes in his lifetime: his father's death in a car accident, his mother's death, his sister's cancer. "Saying goodbye to my pictures was the most painful of all," he says. "I hope everything will be cleared up quickly, so I can finally have my pictures back." It's another sentence he repeats often during the three-day trip.

He has a heart condition. After walking a short distance, he has to sit down and rest for five minutes. He doesn't have his father's strong heart. Instead, his heart is a constant source of worry, keeping him awake at night until his next doctor's appointment.

His doctor, an internist, is hundreds of kilometers away from Munich. He's an amiable man who tries to convince him to move into a nursing home. Gurlitt's descriptions paint a picture of an important senior physician in a private hospital. In fact, the doctor has an ordinary practice on a side street in a small city, nondescript, "and yet with the best equipment in Germany," says Gurlitt, as if to explain why he would take a trip that must be utterly exhausting for someone who has to take a taxi to go grocery shopping at home.

But the train journey is also a little like a vacation. Every three months, he buys a 2nd-class ticket on the ICE for €102 ($138), without a reserved seat. Gurlitt normally sits in the open coach car, to avoid being put in the embarrassing situation of having to look into other people's eyes. On this afternoon, however, there are no seats available in the open coach car, and Gurlitt has to sit in a compartment, which makes him anxious. He sits next to the glass door, so that the compartment looks full. He keeps his suitcase right next to him. It contains his red-and-white checked nightshirt, bread, cold cuts and his favorite carbonated drink. He needs the food for evenings in the hotel.

Gurlitt is always on time, which is important to him. He doesn't like things that are unplanned. The doctor's appointment is on a Thursday, but Gurlitt leaves Munich on Tuesday. He is wearing a black-and-white plaid sports jacket with three buttons. The jacket is far too big for him. He says he used to be heavier, but that he can't find anything he likes in department stores these days.

'I'm Alone'

He hopes that the public will soon lose interest. Until then, when he goes out on cold winter days he plans to hide behind a scarf, which he wraps around his face. He already senses that this might not work, and he hopes something else, something big will happen soon to divert attention from him -- perhaps some kind of newsworthy attack somewhere, but with no casualties, of course. He doesn't like violence and he doesn't like to see evil prevail, but if something does happen, he says, maybe it'll make the mob disappear from outside his building.

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.

Gurlitt recalls his childhood on Alte Rabenstrasse in Hamburg, a street located only steps away from the city's Alster lake. He talks about the camouflage structures for the lakeside anti-aircraft guns to protect Hamburg from bombing raids. He wants to go back to Hamburg to get his baptism certificate, for his private archive. It's important to be part of something and have roots, he says. People need that.

The family moved around a lot, always following a father who didn't have an easy time because he "wasn't racially flawless," Gurlitt notes. But he always fought and was very clever, he adds. In Hamburg his father registered the art gallery at Klopstockstrasse 35 in his wife's name, with the art dealer himself listed as an employee. Later, in Dresden, Gurlitt says his father didn't register his business at all. Instead, he kept the works of art at home and ran his business from there. "My father was often driven out, he often fell but he always got back up on his feet again."

Each time it was a new beginning for his son. Cornelius was a shy boy who attended elementary school in Hamburg, then went to high school in Dresden, where he saw Hitler wave from a train. After the Nazi era, he attended the Odenwaldschule -- a famous private rural boarding school in southwestern Germany -- from 1946 to 1948. From time to time, he was tutored by priests. He graduated from high school in Düsseldorf. Cornelius Gurlitt was always the new kid. The last to arrive, the first to go. The stranger who never really belonged. A loner who never had to decide things for himself because he had this strong father who posed for photographs with celebrities in the art museum in Düsseldorf, like German author Thomas Mann and postwar Germany's first president, Theodor Heuss. His father also spoke fluent French and English. "I only speak English, but slowly," says Gurlitt.

Growing Up with Paintings

He wanted to please his father. After high school, he studied art history at the University of Cologne. He also attended lectures on philosophy and music theory. Then he broke off his studies; he doesn't remember when and he prefers not to talk about it. He says he once traveled to Paris with his sister. He didn't want to make the trip alone.

Cornelius Gurlitt first lived with his parents, then with his sister, and finally with his mother. Yet no matter where Cornelius lived, he remained a phantom. He is a polite man, but when workmen came to his door to lay fiber optic cables, they had to fight to get inside his apartment. He says he only wanted to protect his pictures from the prying eyes of strangers.

He remembers playing among paintings by Liebermann, Beckmann and Chagall when he was a child. They moved with him from city to city, and hung in the living rooms and hallways. His father sorted them and loved them -- and they all bear his mark. He hung the green face by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on the wall above young Cornelius' bed. "Hitler didn't like green faces," says Gurlitt. In the privacy of their home, the family didn't speak well of the Führer, Gurlitt recalls. His father resisted the dictator, but so surreptitiously that no one noticed it, he adds.

Hildebrand Gurlitt never bought anything from a private individual, Cornelius insists. Anything else would have been unimaginable for him. The pictures came from German museums or art dealers, Gurlitt says, adding that his father only cooperated with the Nazis because he wanted to save the paintings from being burned. And then he says: "It's possible that my father may have been offered something privately, but he certainly didn't accept it. He would have found that unsavory."

'I've Never Committed a Crime'

Now the anonymous son is in the limelight. This story is about coming to terms with German history, but it is also about Cornelius Gurlitt. After all, he's the son who inherited a treasure, yet never questioned where it came from. He had to take responsibility, but that's a difficult position to be in for someone who finds it hard to take responsibility. "I'm sure the public prosecutor will figure out what I'm going to get back," he says. "I've never committed a crime, and even if I had, it would fall under the statute of limitations. If I were guilty, they would put me in prison."

He just wants to have his pictures back. But when? And which ones? And what about his favorite pictures?

Gurlitt needs friends, family and, above all, lawyers. But he can't make up his mind: "I've never needed one before."

He is also a little disappointed with his sister Benita, who died of cancer last year. She left him alone with this burden. "She was two years younger than me and married. She should have outlived me." He gazes at his hands that he has splayed on the table. "Then she would have inherited everything, and she would have known how to deal with this. Now, everything is so miserable."

Part 3: 'What Kind of State Puts My Private Property on Display?'

Gurlitt has to answer so many questions for which he has no answers. "I never had anything to do with acquiring the pictures, only with saving them," he says. He helped his father back in Dresden when they saved the works of art from the Russians. People should be thankful to him, he says. "My father knew the Russians were getting closer and closer."

His father quickly organized a vehicle from the carpool in Dresden, he recalls, and father and son loaded the artwork into the car. His father then brought everything to a farmer near Dresden, and later to a castle in southern Germany. He says that his father knew people everywhere in Germany.

"People only see banknotes between these papers with paint -- unfortunately," he says.

"I'm not as courageous as my father," he says. "He loved art and fought for it. The state prosecutor has to restore my father's reputation."

The Swiss Incident

The life of Cornelius Gurlitt has become an infinite loop of remorse and coincidence. It was pure chance that he was the one who survived everything. It was also pure chance that he boarded a train with €9,000 in his pocket and attracted the attention of customs agents -- and that he first lied and then was caught red-handed when they searched him in the toilet. The Swiss incident annoys him terribly. He says he sold a painting there over 20 years ago and deposited the money on a Swiss bank account. The art dealer took care of the transport -- he had nothing to do with that, he contends. "I have never illegally taken anything not cleared by customs over the Swiss border," he says.

He claims he has never had income in Switzerland, and never received interest payments. "They should just ask in Switzerland, and then they would realize that I don't have anything there," he says. German railway operator Deutsche Bahn could have given him a note, he insists -- one that says that customs officials also look for money on the trains, not just for goods. Then he never would have boarded that train.

The ICE enters Augsburg station. "The public prosecutor I sent all the documents to is here in Augsburg," says Gurlitt. "I don't understand why he hasn't contacted me."

He says he sent the public prosecutor a photo of his parents' burnt-down house in Dresden. He included old newspaper articles to document the smear campaign against Hildebrand Gurlitt that led to "his father's downfall." Gurlitt doesn't understand why all of this has become public. Courts and judges have to decide on this, and he only has to justify himself to them, he argues. The public prosecutor told him that he would eventually receive an indictment, but nothing has come so far, except for the paparazzi at his front door. "I'm not a murderer, so why are they chasing me?"

He has received a letter informing him that a number of works of art are going to be returned to him. He doesn't know which ones. But he doesn't believe the public prosecutor. "I have never wanted anything from the state." He says he never claimed a penny in benefits. He talks about Hartz IV, Germany's program of benefits for the long-term unemployed, as if it were an unknown disease. He always promptly pays his property tax. Otherwise he says he has had nothing to do with German authorities. Gurlitt receives no pension and has never had health insurance. He has always had his German passport renewed at the consulate in Salzburg, but it expired nearly two years ago.

Sales to Help Pay for Medical Treatment

The last time he was in Austria, at his house in Salzburg, he was taken to hospital because he couldn't walk anymore. It was heart trouble. He had to stay in a clinic for an entire month where an alarm sounded if he got out of bed. "As if I were a criminal," says Gurlitt.

But his health has deteriorated in recent years. He has had additional hospital stays and suffered from cataracts. Gurlitt always paid the doctors in cash. In the fall of 2011, he delivered the "Lion Tamer" by expressionist Max Beckmann to the Lempertz auction house in the western German city of Cologne. He says their lawyer was very nice -- and everything was straightened out with the heirs. The painting was sold for €725,000 ($978,000) and Gurlitt received nearly €400,000, with the rest going to the heirs.

Actually he wanted to part with the Liebermann, but he couldn't get it off the wall. "So I took the Beckmann," he says, noting that it was "solidly" packed. A beautiful painting, typical of Beckmann, and a key work, but Gurlitt urgently needed money. Even back then, he was constantly traveling to see his doctor in the small town.

We arrive at a hotel -- a white three-story building. There is no one at the reception. He always stays here. He rings from the reception to find out his room number, and the golden keychain is hanging for him on the door. There are no people and it's quiet. The room has plastic curtains decorated with tulips and gerberas, fluorescent lights and pictures on the wall that look like they come from a mail order catalogue. "Very nice," says Gurlitt.

He has index cards with the sentences that he wants to read out to the doctor to make a good impression. Gurlitt doesn't often speak with people. On the night before his doctor's appointment, he decides to go to bed at 6 p.m. so he can get up again at 2 o'clock in the morning. His appointment isn't until 8:40 a.m., but he needs time to prepare himself. He's had a bleeding wound on his foot for months, and he wants to wrap it with a new bandage.

'I've Really Missed The Paintings'

The next morning he calls a taxi to travel the 300 meters (1,000 feet) to the doctor's office. When we arrive, there is €3.40 on the meter, but he gives the driver €20 -- after all, it has to be worth the cabbie's while. The doctor tells Gurlitt that morning that his heart is weaker than usual, but that's due to all the excitement.

Back at the hotel room, he sits on his bed. Gurlitt is wearing his dressing gown under a long gray coat. He seems relieved. The nightlight is on.

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."

The next morning, Bavarian Justice Minister Winfried Bausback is quoted in the newspaper as saying that the authorities should definitely speak with Gurlitt.

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. The public prosecutor has enough that exonerates me."

Gurlitt hopes the paintings that are rightfully his will soon be returned. He would still like to sell one work, though, perhaps the Liebermann -- if he is entitled to it, as he puts it -- to pay his hospital bills. The remaining paintings should be returned to his apartment, he says. The Chagall will then be put back into the cupboard, and the painting of the woman playing the piano will go in the hallway, where his mother always hung it.

"I've really missed the paintings -- I notice that now." He says there has been enough public exposure -- of him and his paintings -- and he won't give them to any museum in the world. They have enough other things that they can exhibit, he contends.

"When I'm dead, they can do with them what they want." But until then, he wants to have them for himself. Then he'll finally have a bit of "peace and quiet" again.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan and Paul Cohen
© website copyright Central Registry 2024