"Sole heir" named in will of Nazi art dealer's son

Swiss museum shocked to learn it will inherit Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection of art looted by Nazis during WWII. Gurlitt died Tuesday at 81.

Last Updated May 7, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

Cornelius Gurlitt CBS News
(CBS/AP) A Swiss museum has announced that it has been named the "unrestricted and unfettered sole heir" of a German art collector who, two years ago, was found hoarding more than 1,000 missing artworks in his Munich apartment.

Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive 81-year-old son of one of Hitler's favorite art dealers, died Tuesday. His collection of long-hidden artworks set off an uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis.

The Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland announced they were contacted by Gurlitt's lawyer, Christoph Edel, and told the news. The museum expressed their shock in a written statement, saying "at no time" did Gurlitt have "any connection" to the museum.

"At the same time, (we) do not wish to conceal the fact that this magnificent bequest brings with it a considerable burden of responsibility and a wealth of questions of the most difficult and sensitive kind, and questions in particular of a legal and ethical nature," it said in a statement.

Edel's office declined to comment. It referred questions to Gurlitt's spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, who said his client summoned a notary earlier this year before he underwent heart surgery, with his lawyer also present, but that it was up to the Munich district court to determine whether the will is valid.

All of the art in the collection was acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt, Cornelius's father. He was a leading art dealer chosen by Hitler to sell the art, most of which was stolen from the walls of museums, or from Jewish-owned galleries and collectors.

As Morley Safer reported in a 60 Minutes story last month (embedded below), German authorities stumbled upon Gurlitt's collection in 2012 and what they found was astonishing: works by artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Max Beckmann -- the largest cache of missing art found since World War II. Once the art was seized by authorities in February 2012, a legal battle ensued over who really owns the art.

Billion-dollar art battle steeped in WWII his... 13:40

In April, Gurlitt agreed to cooperate with authorities and return any artwork proven to be stolen to their rightful owners. So far, no artworks from the collection have been returned.

Chris Marinello, a lawyer for the heirs of art dealer Paul Rosenberg who have claimed ownership of a painting by Matisse found in Gurlitt's apartment, is buoyed by Wednesday's announcement.

Before Cornelius Gurlitt's death, his lawyers said it was his intent to return the painting by Matisse to Paul Rosenberg's family.

Marinello believes that deal will be honored and the Rosenberg family expects the painting, now worth an estimated $20 million, to be returned soon.

Marinello says, "Let's hope German authorities will expedite this process to make up for two years of missteps since the hoard was first discovered."

Of Gurlitt's bequest to The Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Marninello went on to say, "Under no circumstances should this collection be known as the Gurlitt collection. It was assembled only due to the persecution and horrors of the Holocaust."