Hoarder of Nazi-Looted Art Treasures Calls Paintings Love of His Life


He talks a lot about the old days during the three-day trip, the days when he had no responsibility and no decisions to make. In those days, his father was still in control of the situation, a man who fought for modern art and promoted art as a whole, but who then did business with the Nazis, selling so-called degenerate art abroad, which probably included stolen art. Apparently his father kept some of that art for himself.

Gurlitt recalls his childhood on Alte Rabenstrasse in Hamburg, a street located only steps away from the city's Alster lake. He talks about the camouflage structures for the lakeside anti-aircraft guns to protect Hamburg from bombing raids. He wants to go back to Hamburg to get his baptism certificate, for his private archive. It's important to be part of something and have roots, he says. People need that.

The family moved around a lot, always following a father who didn't have an easy time because he "wasn't racially flawless," Gurlitt notes. But he always fought and was very clever, he adds. In Hamburg his father registered the art gallery at Klopstockstrasse 35 in his wife's name, with the art dealer himself listed as an employee. Later, in Dresden, Gurlitt says his father didn't register his business at all. Instead, he kept the works of art at home and ran his business from there. "My father was often driven out, he often fell but he always got back up on his feet again."

Each time it was a new beginning for his son. Cornelius was a shy boy who attended elementary school in Hamburg, then went to high school in Dresden, where he saw Hitler wave from a train. After the Nazi era, he attended the Odenwaldschule -- a famous private rural boarding school in southwestern Germany -- from 1946 to 1948. From time to time, he was tutored by priests. He graduated from high school in Düsseldorf. Cornelius Gurlitt was always the new kid. The last to arrive, the first to go. The stranger who never really belonged. A loner who never had to decide things for himself because he had this strong father who posed for photographs with celebrities in the art museum in Düsseldorf, like German author Thomas Mann and postwar Germany's first president, Theodor Heuss. His father also spoke fluent French and English. "I only speak English, but slowly," says Gurlitt.

Growing Up with Paintings

He wanted to please his father. After high school, he studied art history at the University of Cologne. He also attended lectures on philosophy and music theory. Then he broke off his studies; he doesn't remember when and he prefers not to talk about it. He says he once traveled to Paris with his sister. He didn't want to make the trip alone.

Cornelius Gurlitt first lived with his parents, then with his sister, and finally with his mother. Yet no matter where Cornelius lived, he remained a phantom. He is a polite man, but when workmen came to his door to lay fiber optic cables, they had to fight to get inside his apartment. He says he only wanted to protect his pictures from the prying eyes of strangers.

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