BERLIN - The German recluse whose billion-dollar art hoard was seized by authorities has broken his silence to ask for the pictures back and to deny his father, an art dealer for Hitler, ever extorted any from Jewish owners.
In an interview with Der Spiegel, his first substantive comments since the mysterious trove was revealed two weeks ago, 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt recalled helping his father save some of the works from wartime Dresden and said the state had no right to impound treasures he called the love of his life.
Compared to the deaths of his father Hildebrand, his mother or his sister, "parting with my pictures was the most painful of all", Gurlitt told the magazine. "I haven't loved anything more than my pictures in my life ... But hopefully it will all be cleared up soon and I will finally get my pictures back."
Dismissing suggestions he might return some of the 1,406 paintings and drawings to survivors of Nazi persecution, the frail-looking Gurlitt insisted he inherited them legally and sold only an occasional masterpiece from his Munich apartment to cover medical and living expenses, as he claimed no pension. "I'm giving nothing back willingly," he said.
Customs officers found him crossing the Swiss border by train in 2010 with a large sum in cash, eventually prompting a raid on his apartment early last year. Prosecutors confiscated works by Renaissance and Modernist masters, some long thought lost in the war, others hitherto undocumented.
The authorities valued at 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) a collection that includes works by Picasso, Otto Dix, Matisse, Chagall and German expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
But Gurlitt, who kept out of sight after the story broke, said he could not understand what all the fuss was about. "I'm not Boris Becker," he said of the former tennis star who fell foul of the tax authorities in Munich a decade ago. Complaining of journalists ringing his doorbell while he hid inside, he added: "What do these people want from me?" "I am really very quiet," he said of a lonely life without employment and overshadowed by the legacy of a dominant father. "All I wanted was to live with my pictures."