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German recluse leaves Nazi-era art hoard to Swiss museum

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A Swiss museum said it was shocked to learn Wednesday the son of a Nazi-era art dealer had left it a disputed hoard of priceless paintings -- some thought to have been plundered from Jews.

One day after the death of Cornelius Gurlitt aged 81, his lawyer told the Museum of Fine Arts in the western Swiss city of Bern that it was the sole heir of the German's spectacular collection.

The institution said in a statement that it was stunned by the "happy surprise" but would now wrestle with the huge legal and historical burden accompanying the artworks.

"Despite speculation in the media that Mr Gurlitt had bequeathed his collection to an art institution outside Germany, the news came like a bolt from the blue, since at no time has Mr Gurlitt had any connection with Kunstmuseum Bern," it said.

While expressing "gratitude", the museum acknowledged that the inheritance also handed it "a considerable responsibility", and raised "sensitive questions, especially of a legal and ethical nature."

It said it would now review the documentation provided to it and consult with the "appropriate authorities" to decide how to proceed.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern already boasts a valuable collection of modern masters including works by Picasso and Paul Klee.

But the inheritance will dramatically expand the breadth and quality of its holdings.

- Love of his life -

Gurlitt, who died Tuesday following heart surgery, had hidden a remarkable trove of 1,280 artworks including long-lost masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall in his flat in the southern German city of Munich for decades.

The eccentric recluse never married and had no children, calling his art the love of his life.

The works, whose value has been estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, were seized in February 2012 when they were discovered by chance in the course of a small-scale tax evasion investigation.

Gurlitt last month struck an accord with the German government to permit research to track down the rightful owners of pieces, including Jews whose property was stolen or extorted under the Third Reich.

Independent experts estimate that around 450 of the works are so-called Nazi-looted art.

The Bavarian state justice ministry told AFP that this review would continue and the commitment to restitution would remain binding for Gurlitt's heir.

More than 200 other paintings, sketches and sculptures were discovered in February this year in a separate home of Gurlitt's in Salzburg, Austria including works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Gauguin.

They are not covered by the German accord and Gurlitt's spokesman Stephan Holzinger said it was not immediately clear whether they had also been bequeathed to the Bern museum.

Gurlitt's art dealer father Hildebrand acquired most of the paintings in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was tasked by the Nazis with selling works taken from Jewish families and avant-garde art seized from German museums that the Hitler regime deemed "degenerate".

Holzinger told AFP that he did not want to "speculate" on why his client had decided to leave the collection to the museum.

However media reports said Gurlitt had been angered that the German authorities had seized his collection over a small tax claim and then dragged their feet with the investigation.

Holzinger said that a Munich court would still have to rule on whether the will was valid.

"If it is found that the Bern museum is the rightful heir, and the museum accepts this inheritance -- a key condition -- then the museum will have to contend from that moment with all legal issues including the question of restitution of looted art," he said.

The Bavarian culture ministry said it would also commission a mandatory review of whether any of the works were on the list of Germany's national heritage.

A spokesman said the ministry assumed few works if any in the collection would fall under this category and lead it to stake a claim.

Meanwhile prosecutors in Munich ordered an autopsy for Gurlitt to determine his definitive cause of death.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140507/german-recluse-leaves-nazi-era-art-hoard-swiss-museum