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Death of German collector complicates quest to reclaim Nazi-looted art

A detail of Henri Matisse’s “Woman with a fan,” one of the paintings in Gurlitt’s collection.

MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS/Newscom

An international battle over a $1.5-billion art collection that contains works allegedly looted by the Nazis has become more entangled with the death of the reclusive German collector who owned the masterpieces.

Cornelius Gurlitt, a loner who had no immediate family, died Tuesday in his Munich apartment, his spokesman said. Mr. Gurlitt, 81, had heart surgery in February and had returned to hospital a week ago, the statement said, but he asked to be moved back to his apartment.

The reclusive collector drew attention last fall when German authorities disclosed they had seized a horde of 1,280 works from his apartment in 2012, after becoming suspicious about his holdings following a customs check on a train in 2010. Another 200 works were later found at another house he owned in Austria.

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Mr. Gurlitt said he had inherited the collection – including works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse – from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer known to have traded in art seized by the Nazis.

Chris Marinello, a London-based lawyer acting for clients who have laid claim to some of the paintings in the collection, said Tuesday it is unclear what impact Mr. Gurlitt's death might have on moves to recover the art. He said he did not know yet if Mr. Gurlitt had a will or if he had made any provision for the paintings with his legal team or the guardian of his estate.

"It's far too early to tell what it's going to mean as far as any estate issues that may arise," Mr. Marinello said in an interview.

His clients include descendants of prominent Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg who fled France before the Germans invaded, leaving behind 400 paintings in Paris that were taken by the Nazis.

Mr. Rosenberg's relatives, including granddaughter Anne Sinclair (the ex-wife of former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn), have battled Mr. Gurlitt to win the return of a valuable Matisse painting, Woman with a Fan, which they say documentation proves was taken from Mr. Rosenberg. It is estimated to be worth more than $20-million.

Mr. Marinello said he remains confident the Rosenberg family will be able to recover the Matisse once the case is concluded. "The claim to the Matisse is solid – we've proven our case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Mr. Gurlitt initially insisted he would never give up any of his collection. But, last month, he was persuaded to sign an agreement with German authorities to allow a government-appointed task force of art experts to investigate the history of the artworks and return any pieces found to have been stolen during the Second World War.

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Winfried Bausback, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian justice ministry, told Agence France-Presse that the agreement will also apply to any heirs of his estate. "The research on the paintings will go forward without question."

German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters issued a statement saying Mr. Gurlitt deserved credit for eventually agreeing to allow an investigation of his collection.

The seizure of his long-unseen collection – first revealed in an article in Germany's Focus news magazine – caused a stir in the art world last year because it includes masterpieces by famous artists, including some paintings that were previously unknown. Mr. Gurlitt owned paintings by Chagall, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, Cézanne and others, and many of the works were believed to be legitimately acquired.

In addition to more than 1,200 paintings seized from Mr. Gurlitt's Munich apartment, authorities discovered more than 200 other works in another house he owned in Salzburg, Austria.

Mr. Gurlitt, who lived in seclusion with little contact with the outside world (he reportedly stopped watching television in 1963), told German news media that his art collection had been his "only friends" and there was "nothing I've loved more in my life than my pictures."

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Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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