Artworks among the trove that Cornelius Gurlitt kept for years in his Munich apartment. From top left: "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza" by Honore Daumier, "Riders on the Beach" by Max Liebermann, "Study of a Woman Nude, Standing, Arms Raised, Hands Crossed Above Head" by Auguste Rodin, "Child at Table" by Otto Griebel, "Sa Giustina in Pra della Vale" by Antonio Canaletto, "Male Portrait" by Ludwig Godenschweg, "Couple" by Hans Christoph, "Mother and Child" by Erich Fraass, "Couple in a Landscape" by Conrad Felixmueller, "View of the Seine Valley" by Theodore Rousseau, "Monk" by Christoph Voll, "Tram" by Bernhard Kretschmar, "Thinking Woman" by Fritz Maskos, "The Master Exploder Hantsch" by Christoph Voll, "Female Nude" by Ludwig Godenschweg, "Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in Armchair" by Henri Matisse, "Veiled Woman" by Otto Griebel, "Girl at Table" by Wilhelm Lachnit, "Dompteuse" by Otto Dix, and "Male Nude" by Bonaventura Genelli.
MUNICH — As an expert in works of art that the Nazis called “degenerate” and in the dealers who traded them during World War II, Vanessa Voigt often wondered what had become of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a prominent Nazi-era art dealer and a figure she had come to view as a “phantom.”
Early last year, Ms. Voigt finally came face to face with the elusive man who kept popping up vaguely in her research. German customs officers had just stumbled on some 1,280 paintings and drawings — masterworks believed to be worth more than $1 billion — stashed in Mr. Gurlitt’s Munich apartment, and they turned to Ms. Voigt to help them understand what was going on.
As the customs officers confiscated the works, a distressed Mr. Gurlitt paced restlessly around his previously inviolable domain, muttering over and over to himself, “Now they are taking everything from me,” recalled Ms. Voigt, who was present. “He was mortified,” she said.
In an interview, his first, published on Sunday, Mr. Gurlitt, 80, told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the confiscation of the artwork was a devastating blow — more difficult even than the loss of his sister, Benita, to cancer last year. “Saying goodbye to my pictures was the most painful of all,” he said.
Speaking to Der Spiegel last week, during a trip to an unidentified German town to see a doctor for a heart condition, Mr. Gurlitt said he had not watched television since 1963 and had never gone online, but did talk to his pictures. He kept his favorites, a collection of works on paper, in a small suitcase that he would unpack each evening to admire.
Until the raid in February 2012, Mr. Gurlitt had guarded his privacy zealously, refusing to open his door even to meter readers from the gas company. He rarely spoke to or even acknowledged his neighbors. He had no friends whom anyone ever saw.
His sudden fame as the keeper of the largest trove of masterworks to be uncovered since World War II has left him bewildered. “What do these people want from me?” he asked Der Spiegel. “I’m just a very quiet person. All I wanted to do was live with my pictures.”
For more than a half-century, Mr. Gurlitt’s only true companions were a vast menagerie of vibrant, multicolored images created by Picasso, Chagall, Gauguin and a host of other modern masters. He inherited the works from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an exuberant Nazi-era art dealer, partly Jewish, who at times worked in the service of the Third Reich but also counted artists disliked by the Nazis among his friends.
Because the collection was so valuable and, perhaps, because its provenance was so tainted by the family’s association with the Nazis, the desire to keep it secure compelled Mr. Gurlitt to live a strange, Gollum-like existence behind permanently drawn blinds. This obscured not only the artworks but also the man himself.
Those works, rare and irreplaceable, became his entire world. He played among them as a child, he told Der Spiegel, and now grieves their loss. “There is nothing I have loved more in my life than my pictures,” he said.
When asked if he had ever been in love with a fellow human being, he giggled and said, “Oh, no.”
Still, a big question remains: Why did Mr. Gurlitt feel the need to keep so much art hidden away? It is not clear whether he broke any laws; the German authorities are still trying to determine the rightful ownership of the works.
Mr. Gurlitt told Der Spiegel that he knew a lot about the origins of the works but wanted to keep that information to himself, like a private love affair. “People only see banknotes between these papers with paint, unfortunately,” he said.
Christine Echter, who was the longtime caretaker of the building in which Mr. Gurlitt lives, said, “He wasn’t just weird these last few years; he’s always been that way.” He kept to himself so much, she said, that other residents inquired whether his apartment was vacant and perhaps for sale.
In the 29 years that she watched over the building before retiring recently, Ms. Echter said she never saw anyone enter Mr. Gurlitt’s sixth-floor apartment except for his sister, who lived near Stuttgart and stopped visiting about six years ago.
Konrad O. Bernheimer, a prominent Munich art dealer who has followed the drama surrounding Mr. Gurlitt, said he had never encountered such a strange and sad affair.
“The saddest part of this whole story is this man’s life: He was locked up in the dark with all these wonderful paintings,” said Mr. Bernheimer, who said he had never come across Mr. Gurlitt despite decades in the business. “He is a man in the shadows, a ghost who never came out.”
Watching over his family’s art trove was Mr. Gurlitt’s only known job. Periodically, he dipped into the collection to select a work to sell, a need that became more pressing in recent years as his health declined, according to Der Spiegel.
The last piece he is known to have sold — “The Lion Tamer,” by the German artist Max Beckmann — fetched €864,000, or $1.17 million, at an auction in Cologne in 2011. Mr. Gurlitt agreed to give 45 percent of the proceeds to a Jewish family that had originally owned the work.
Emmarentia Bahlmann, a Munich-based art expert for the Cologne auction house, Kunsthaus Lempertz, that organized the sale, said Mr. Gurlitt had never been a client before and had “called out of the blue.” Eager to see what, exactly, he had, she arranged an appointment at his apartment and arrived to find Mr. Gurlitt alone in semidarkness with a single “marvelous piece of art” — the Beckmann painting — hanging on the wall.
The painting, Ms. Bahlmann recalled, had clearly been hanging there for a long time. The wall behind it was discolored, and the glass covering was caked in dust. The work, torn in two places, was the only art visible in a sitting room she described as “gloomy” but reasonably tidy.
Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment was not the home of a collector, said Ms. Voigt, the art historian. “A collector prides himself on his art and shows it off,” she said. On the day she saw the apartment, Mr. Gurlitt had just one small drawing in the hallway and a second one in the living room, where there was also a modest statue.
His home was, rather, that of someone who “wanted to hide from the world,” Ms. Voigt said. The darkened living room had a “cavelike” quality. Shelves in a corridor were piled neatly with ready-to-eat meals. In the bedroom were two large plastic bags with a reserve of new shirts and pajamas. The art collection was kept in a guest room, behind a curtain.
Despite his seclusion, Mr. Gurlitt had a firm enough grasp on reality to minimize the risks of what he was doing. When German customs officers questioned him in 2010 on a train to Munich from Switzerland, where he is known to have a bank account and has sold at least one work, they discovered he was carrying €9,000 , just below the legal limit.
His excessively shy manner nonetheless set off alarm bells. Their volume increased when investigators discovered later that Mr. Gurlitt did not exist, bureaucratically speaking. He was not listed in Munich’s registry of residents or in other official records.
Ms. Bahlmann, the auction house expert, said she found Mr. Gurlitt to be “in full control of his senses”: a “shy old man” with elegant attire, good manners and a clear mind. In their dealings over the sale of “The Lion Tamer,” she said, he handled all the negotiations himself.
Ms. Bahlmann said she never asked Mr. Gurlitt why he wanted to sell the painting — he told Der Spiegel in the interview last week that he needed money for medical treatment — but she did inquire, gently, if he perhaps possessed other pieces of art. “No, only this,” he replied, according to Ms. Bahlmann. “It belonged to my mother.”
Before that, though, it belonged to his father, Hildebrand, one of just four people authorized by the Nazis to trade so-called degenerate art during the war.
As the Allied forces advanced and German defenses crumbled, the elder Mr. Gurlitt, according to an account he later gave to American interrogators, managed to get a truck and trailer. With boxes of art piled in the trailer and his wife, Helene, and two children, Cornelius and Benita, lying on mattresses in the back, he traveled 48 hours straight to the castle of an acquaintance, Baron von Pollnitz.
Soon after, he was detained there and questioned by members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit of the United States military, the group of historians, curators and soldiers entrusted with safeguarding Europe’s cultural heritage.
In his statements to investigators, he emphasized his anti-Nazi sentiments and maintained that he had never handled stolen art. He worked mostly with dealers and middlemen, he said, not private individuals.
As for the art in his possession, the elder Mr. Gurlitt said it was “the personal property of my family or myself.” He described some pieces as heirlooms and others as having been “bought during the war in Paris or Amsterdam.”
Investigators concluded that he was not an important player in the art trade and later returned to him more than 115 paintings, in addition to drawings and other fine art objects.
In 1956, Hildebrand Gurlitt died behind the wheel of a German sports car. He crashed on the autobahn while racing from Berlin back to the family’s home in Düsseldorf, which later named a street after him in honor of his postwar contributions to the local art scene.
The war years, however, continued to shadow the family. Maria Gurlitt, a relative in Munich, said her father, Wolfgang, also an art dealer, had severed all ties with Hildebrand’s side of the family. She never even knew that she had a second cousin named Cornelius, she said.
“My father hated Hildebrand and thought he was a Nazi,” Ms. Gurlitt said, adding that her father was “100 percent anti-Fascist.” (Some art historians, including Ms. Voigt, question whether that is true.)
At the time of his father’s death, Cornelius was just 23 and was already retreating deep into his own world.
“Even then, he was considered an eccentric fellow,” recalled Karl-Heinz Hering, whom the elder Mr. Gurlitt had hired to work as his assistant at the Düsseldorf Kunstverein, the region’s leading art museum. Mr. Hering said he had not known that the family owned a large, private art collection.
After Hildebrand’s death, the family scattered. His widow moved in 1961 to the same Munich apartment Cornelius occupies today.
In late 1966, a government agency in Berlin responsible for the restitution of assets plundered during the Nazi era sent a formal letter asking about four paintings acquired by her husband. Mrs. Gurlitt replied that all her husband’s records and artworks had been “incinerated” when the Allies bombed Dresden in February 1945. The search of Cornelius’s apartment last year proved this to be a deception: Investigators found not only paintings but also record books kept by Hildebrand.
While his mother was still alive, Cornelius bought a small, two-story house on a quiet street in Salzburg, Austria, just across the border from Germany. After Mrs. Gurlitt died in late 1967, he began to spend more time at the apartment in Munich.
A neighbor in Salzburg, Helmut Ludescher, a retired Austrian gas company executive, said he had spoken with Mr. Gurlitt just once since 1961. In recent years, Mr. Gurlitt had been such a faint presence that Mr. Ludescher began to worry that he had fallen ill or even died inside his house, Mr. Ludescher recalled. In October 2010, he asked the Salzburg police to check on Mr. Gurlitt. They broke into the house, but it was empty.
“They found nothing out of the ordinary,” said Anton Sentz, a police spokesman. “There was no stock of paintings.”