It appears any quick, easy and amiable solution to the problem of who properly owns art discovered in the apartment Cornelius Gurlitt isn’t going to happen. Gurlitt is the Munich collector from whom German authorities seized an astonishing cache of art, likely acquired during the Nazi era and some of it possibly purchased or taken from Jewish owners under duress. The German magazine Der Spiegel has landed an interview with the reclusive and elderly man, whose father participated in art sales for the Nazis and assembled the collection, which includes work by Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.
Gurlitt, frail but defiant, said he had no intention of giving anything to anyone. “I won’t speak with them, and I won’t voluntarily give back anything, no, no,” he said. “When I’m dead, they can do with them what they want,” he added.
Recent analysis of German law, including a 30-year statute of limitations, has suggested that the best hope for Jewish families who may have a claim on art in Gurlitt’s trove is that he might cooperate with authorities. But that now seems unlikely.
Bits and pieces of information about Gurlitt have come out in the days since the stunning revelation that he had kept his father’s art collection in his apartment, selling occasional pieces to cover expenses, but otherwise living a solitary life surrounded by hundreds of paintings and other works. Reporters from Paris Match snapped pictures of Gurlitt out shopping, capturing an elegant but stooped man with thin silver hair. According to the magazine, he had only one enigmatic response when he was approached by the journalists: “Approval that comes from the wrong side is the worst thing that can happen.”
It’s difficult to know the context of that remark, but it makes a certain sense if heard in light of things said in the Spiegel interview, including this: “People only see banknotes with this painted paper.” Again, the context is uncertain, but the implication from the story is that Gurlitt has a deeply personal relation with the art, which he distinguishes from the worldly interest in what it might be worth, and to whom it ultimately belongs.
Der Spiegel adds this detail, which makes Gurlitt sound a bit like a character from a Nathaniel Hawthorne story: “He spoke to his paintings. They were his friends, the loyal companions that didn’t exist in his real life. He considered it is his life’s mission to protect his father’s treasure, and over the decades he lost touch with reality.” He has no actual friends, and when asked if he had ever been in love with a human being, he laughed and said, “Oh, no.”
Lost in most stories about the business of art, its value, sale and provenance, is any discussion of the emotional aspect of ownership. On the surface, ownership seems simple: Art is bought and sold like any other commodity. But one has the sense that Gurlitt feels a deeper sense of ownership that may have clouded any thoughts he might have had about how his father acquired it. Ownership resides, for him, in the intensely personal and intimate relationship he has to the work.
Although Gurlitt isn’t accused of stealing any work, his relationship to the art sounds a bit like that of one of the most notorious art thieves of the last century, Stephane Breitweisser, who stole more than 200 works from museums in Europe. Breitweisser was the rare thief who didn’t steal for money or profit. Rather, he said he simply loved art, claiming to be a connoisseur who enjoyed the work simply for its artistic merit. For some people, it’s all too easy to cross the line between connoisseurship and the belief that a deeply personal connection to a work of art gives you a kind of personal right of ownership.
For anyone whose family might have once owned work in Gurlitt’s collection, that emotional connection between the reclusive collector and his art will be the biggest obstacle to restitution