Earlier this month, German officials revealed they’d discovered a trove of more than 1,400 masterpieces, many believed looted by the Nazis.
The story is rife with controversy, not least because authorities kept the findings secret for about three years and have still not published a list of the works or located a single rightful owner, according to AFP.
The story gets even stranger when you learn about the guy who’d been keeping them all these years.
Cornelius Gurlitt, 81, says never had any intention of giving the works up,
according a blockbuster interview with Der Spiegel published this weekend. Authorities only learned of him after he was detained with an unusually large amount of cash at the Swiss border in 2010. He’d maintained a bank account there after selling a work to a Swiss dealer.
Since inheriting the works from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art-world mogul who started doing business with the Nazis in 1933, Gurlitt has lived the life of an eccentric recluse.
Here are some of the bizarre details recorded by Spiegel’s Õzlem Gezer…
Gurlitt hasn’t watched TV in 50 years:
“He stopped…when Germany’s second public television network was launched, the “new station” with its trademark Mainzelmännchen cartoon characters. That was in 1963.”
But he’s aware of modern celebrities:
“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?”
Travelling has its rituals. On his regular visits to his doctor, hundreds of kilometers away from Munich…:
“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 favourite carbonated drink. He needs the food for evenings in the hotel.”
And he painstakingly reserves all his hotel rooms via snail mail:
“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.”
Still, tech in 2013 dazzles him:
“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.”
There are more profound opinions. He thinks Munich, where Hitler launched his political career, and where, for now, Gurlitt lives, remains haunted:
“Munich is the ‘source of all evil,’ says Gurlitt. ‘This is where the movement was founded…’ He keeps repeating the same sentence, and when he does his quivering voice becomes louder…In Gurlitt’s opinion, evil still appears to reside in the city.”
Mostly Gurlitt comes off as a sad loner. He says he regrets having even lived this long, admitting he was not made out for the investigation, and that the works and the responsibility for them should have fallen to his sister, who died last year.
He says he’s never loved anyone in his life, and that the paintings, which he would unpack and admire every evening, were all he had:
“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.’ ”
There is a chance that could happen. German newspaper Focus, which first broke the story about the years-long investigation, says only 590 of the works are considered looted by the Nazis, and that at this point authorities are looking to make a deal with Gurlitt.
You can read the entire Der Spiegel interview here.
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