Berlin - Cornelius Gurlitt left his collection of hundreds of European art works – amassed by his father under the Nazis – to the Kunstmuseum Bern, the museum announced on Wednesday. In a statement, the museum said that the news “came like a bolt from the blue.”
Mr. Gurlitt, who died at age 81 on Tuesday after a long illness, left a will with a notary in southwestern Germany, a spokesman for a Munich court said on Wednesday. The details of the document have not yet been examined by the Munich court charged with regulating Mr. Gurlitt’s estate, but the Swiss museum said it had been informed of the gift by Christoph Edel, a lawyer who served as Mr. Gurlitt’s legal guardian in the final months of his life.
A statement on the museum’s website added that Mr. Gurlitt had not had “any connection with Kunstmuseum Bern.”
Mr. Gurlitt died without known heirs, leaving behind a tangle of questions about what would become of the art — some of it in the custody of the German government; some of it still in his possession prior to his death; and some of it subject to restitution claims.
Gerhard Zierl, the president of the court, said that the court would examine the will once it has been received, presumably over the next week. Any heirs in Germany would then have six weeks to claim their inheritance under German law; any abroad would have six months, he added. He emphasized that the court is bound by law to keep the identity of heirs private and not to release details of the will.
The museum said its board of directors and trustees would need time to examine what it described as a “magnificent bequest,” noting that it “brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature.”
Mr. Gurlitt had recently reached an agreement with the authorities in Germany that permitted the return to him of hundreds of the 1,280 artworks seized by officials from his Munich home during an investigation for tax evasion in February 2012.
Yet hundreds of the works remain in the custody of a task force of art experts appointed by the German government to clarify whether the collection included any pieces that were looted or stolen by the Nazis. The agreement Mr. Gurlitt reached with German authorities carries over to whoever inherits the collection, said Winfried Bausback, Bavaria’s justice minister, including the museum. This means that research into provenance can continue and eventual restitution should be possible.
“With this agreement, he ensured that the research into the history of the pictures would be allowed to continue in any case,” Mr. Bausback said in a statement. “This allows for the Nazi crimes to be examined and victims to make their claims, even beyond Mr. Gurlitt’s death.”
Mr. Gurlitt’s collection, which included works by artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, and by German Expressionists, has been held at an undisclosed location while under examination by an international task force formed after the existence of the art horde was disclosed last November by the news weekly Focus. An additional 238 works removed from Mr. Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg, Austria, this spring are also held at an undisclosed location.
Under the deal reached last month, Mr. Gurlitt, who had been suffering from heart trouble since December, agreed that the task force could keep investigating the provenance of any works whose history is unclear and which may have been plundered from museums under the Nazis, or confiscated from Jewish owners.