Cornelius Gurlitt died yesterday, six months after his art collection was revealed to the world in a Focus article, and less than a month after striking a deal with Bavarian prosecutors over the 1,280 paintings and works of art seized from his apartment as part of a tax investigation. Although that brings the investigation that initially led to the seizure to an end, many questions remain about what will happen to the deal that he made, and to the works of art in Austria not covered by that deal
The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported quickly that Gurlitt has a will, and that he stated his wish that his paintings be kept together and conveyed to an as-yet unnamed art institution outside of Germany. But what are “his” paintings? For their part, the Bavarian authorities declared that Gurlitt’s death does not alter the terms of the deal they made, and the Task Force review will continue as planned.
Gurlitt has no direct heirs. He had a brother in law with whom he had no relationship, and a ninety year old cousin, who does have heirs. German testamentary law will govern which of them, if any, stand to inherit anything from Gurlitt (what there is to inherit would be significantly altered by the bequest reported in the SZ). That, in turn, should determine who might have standing to object to the outcome of the Task Force review when it is completed (either because the government returned too few works—or too many).
Apart from the Task Force, who his heirs are will also be important to the negotiations with claimants that were underway, particularly for the Henri Matisse Seated Woman that Gurlitt apparently had a tentative agreement to return to Anne Sinclair as heir of Paul Rosenberg, only to be faced with a second claimant. Who will the negotiating party be now?
Far more than last month’s deal, Gurlitt’s passing is the coda to a six-month saga that already seems hard to believe, which has revived focus on the Nazis’ “degenerate art” program and his father Hildebrand Gurlitt’s involvement in it, Nazi looted art in museums (particularly in Germany) and art looted from German museums, and the difficulties of constructing a claims process that will be accepted. It is also clearly the beginning of the next chapter in this saga.