Now that the German authorities have discovered the billion-dollar art trove Cornelius Gurlitt hid in his tiny Munich apartment for decades it may take just as long to determine who its rightful owners are. Morley Safer reports the story of the largest cache of missing art since WWII and the battle over its ownership on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday April 6 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.Gurlitt inherited the 1,400-plus works of art from his father, Hildebrant Gurlitt, one of Hitler's leading art dealers - a fact that indicates at least some of it was looted during the dictator's reign. Gurlitt lived with the massive collection, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, all his life and is said to have remarked shortly after its discovery that anything taken from the apartment must be returned. That could happen.
The statute of limitations for theft in Germany is 30 years and expired long ago. The authorities are investigating Gurlitt for tax violations. He has been selling paintings periodically over the years to sustain himself and to pay for costly medical bills. That is how his cache was discovered. When authorities found thousands of Euros on Gurlitt aboard a train from Switzerland, they couldn't find government records of him in Germany. The incident began an investigation by the German authorities that led to a raid on his apartment where the entire collection was confiscated.
By German law Gurlitt owns the works. Safer raises the question of morality with Ingrid Bergreen-Merkel, who heads the task force trying to find evidence of looting for each work. "Eighty years after Hitler took over, 75 years after the synagogues burned...yes we know the moral obligation and we take it seriously," she says. "On the other side there are the laws."
Tido Park, Gurlitt's lawyer, says the government has a weak case but that his client is willing to cooperate and is looking to first return a Matisse the Nazis looted from Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg in 1941. "Mr. Gurlitt is absolutely willing to find fair solutions, but what we need of course is clear evidence," he tells Safer. "Because we have some letters addressed to Mr. Gurlitt saying, 'Oh, look, my grandma had a specific painting 70 years ago in her living room.' No evidence, nothing."
Such posturing frustrates people like Martha Hinrichsen. She had given up hope of finding her grandfather's works confiscated by the Nazis until documents in Gurlitt's apartment mention the "sale" of works once owned by the grandfather. The sale was really theft by other means, reports Safer, because Hinrichsen's grandfather never received the money. He died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. "Legally, it was a sale," she says, "morally and ethically is another question."
In the apartment, the task force found a drawing she says her grandfather owned that she has filed a claim for. She doesn't think she will be seeing the drawing anytime soon. "I don't believe in my lifetime, because I think this is going to be a long, long battle." One thing that could further complicate restitution is the fact that Gurritt is 81 and has just been treated for a serious heart condition. He recently drew up a will in the hospital but his lawyers say they don't know what's in it.