The mysterious Munich recluse who hoarded €1bn of Nazis' stolen art

Cornelius Gurlitt stacked suspected looted works in Schwabing apartment among juice cartons and 1980s tinned food

There's nothing remarkable about Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt's flat, a fifth-floor apartment on the shady side of a modernist apartment block in Munich's Schwabing district: walking distance to the lush English Gardens nearby; a balcony with black stains from years of inefficiently drained rainwater; no plants or flowers. On a sunny Monday morning, the blinds are drawn.

But Gurlitt's flat was, until recently, home to one of the most extraordinary artistic treasure troves of the postwar period. On Sunday, news magazine Focus revealed that German police two years ago confiscated 1,500 works worth up to €1bn (£860m) from the apartment. Picassos, Matisses, Chagalls, Klees, Munchs – all of them believed to have been looted or confiscated by the Nazis: modernist masters hidden behind grey modernist concrete.

What the police discovered when they raided the three-bedroom flat in spring 2011, however, had more of a Young British Artists vibe: homemade shelves stacked with hundreds of juice cartons and tinned food with a 1980s sell-by date. The artworks were simply piled on top of one another. Windows and the balcony door were barricaded shut, fresh air crept into the flat through a single window.

While the customs officers were getting to grips with their discovery, Gurlitt, 80, reportedly remained in his darkened bedroom without protesting. At one point, Focus revealedon Monday, he had asked laconically why the police couldn't have waited until he was dead. They would have got their hands on the art anyway.

Gurlitt's name is on a plaque next to the entrance, in black on white, underneath one of the chrome doorbells. No one answers when the Guardian rings – which is nothing unusual, the neighbours says. Gurlitt, who is understood to have a shock of white hair and a slight limp, hasn't been seen in the apartment block since August. He never had visitors, and "when we rang the doorbell, he never opened", says one neighbour.

That he was able to keep his secret treasures here, not in some remote corner of the globe but in the centre of the city that gave birth to the National Socialist movement, is both extraordinary and not short of a certain dark irony.

Schwabing has traditionally been the bohemian quarter of the Bavarian capital, and it's not out of the question that some of the modernist masterpieces hoarded in Gurlitt's flat were painted only a couple of streets away: Franz Marc, Paul Klee and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner drank in the local bars, and some of their most famous works are still on display in Munich's modern art gallery down the road. Another artist who tried – and failed – to make a living as an artist in Schwabing, of course, was Adolf Hitler.

Even when Gurlitt's apartment block was built in the 1960s, the area was still fairly poor and edgy. "Back then, you wouldn't have batted an eyelid if someone walked down the road with a couple of picture frames under his arm," says a local woman, named Schmidt, who is in her 80s and moved to the neighbourhood in 1970. "There were artists everywhere."

Another neighbour stops by, attracted by the throng of people gathering below the flat. "I wouldn't believe anyone who says they didn't know, " he says. The galleries that Gurlitt sold some of the artworks to in order to keep himself in pocket must have known something wasn't right, he reckons. "The art scene is all corrupt."

A local politician, Ekkehard Pascoe, stops by on his bike. He had seen a picture of the apartment block in Monday's local paper and recognised it. "How incredible!" he says. "You hear these mythical stories about Nazi gold buried at the bottom of lakes, but this is for real!"

None of them recall seeing Gurlitt in the street, but there would have been no reason to pay attention to an elderly gentleman with a lot of money in his pockets either. These days, Schwabing is decidedly upmarket. The estate agent around the corner reckons an apartment like Gurlitt's would currently sell for up to €5,000 euros per square metre.

"The area has become very individualist," says a woman in a bakery down the road. "I wouldn't recognise most of the people in my own apartment these days."

Most of the residents think the artworks should be returned to their rightful owners, though establishing who they are may take some time: many of the remaining records from galleries looted by the Nazis are sketchy and incomplete.

For the German authorities, the headaches may only be about to start. Since the artworks were confiscated in 2011, a Berlin art historian has been studying the works' value and origin. Both Munich customs and the historian seemed overwhelmed by the response when the news broke on Sunday – they may have been wishing to study the works in peace for a bit longer.

Angela Merkel, too, seems to have known about the discovery for some time and didn't urge customs to go public. "The government were informed about this case a few months ago", Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday.

The legal framework is far from clear. While looted artworks are meant to be returned to the heirs of their owners, there is only a non-binding "moral obligation" to return those pieces which were confiscated as "degenerate art" and then sold on.

A Swiss gallery that Gurlitt sold some paintings to in 1990 on Monday sent the Guardian a statement saying the deal had been perfectly legal. German authorities are currently investigating Gurlitt for tax evasion – not for being in possession of looted artworks.

For Angela Merkel, the awkward possibility remains that the elusive Mr Gurlitt may be able to die with his treasure trove intact after all.

Who's who

Hildebrand Gurlitt, German art dealer and collector

Gurlitt was sacked from his job as a museum director in the early 1920s after staging contemporary art exhibitions considered "degenerate" and banned by the Nazis. He was later appointed dealer for the planned Führermuseum in Linz, where Hitler intended to display looted art, and was personally instructed by the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. After the war he told investigators his art collection had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden. Gurlitt was designated a victim of Nazi persecution because his grandmother was Jewish, and continued trading until his death in a car accident in 1956. His collection was handed down to his son, Cornelius.

Cornelius Gurlitt

Hildebrand's reclusive son inherited his father's art collection,and hid them behind tins of food at his home. He appeared to have no job and no source of income. When police arrested him they were astonished to discover he had never officially opened a bank account, had no health insurance or state pension and was entirely unknown to the country's tax authorities and social services.

Paul Rosenberg, French art dealer and collector

The Paris-based art dealer who represented Picasso, Matisse and Braque. At the outbreak of the second world war, Rosenberg and his brother Léonce were considered among the world's most significant modern art dealers. Fearing his collection would be looted by the Nazis, Rosenberg sent many artworks abroad before moving his family to America in September 1940, shortly after the German occupation of Paris. He lost around 2,000 artworks to the Nazis, the vast majority still missing, presumed destroyed. At least one painting foung in Gurlitt's apartment, a Matisse, is though to have belonged to Rosenberg, who died in 1959.

Anne Sinclair, French television star

Paul Rosenberg's French-American granddaughter was born Anne-Elise Schwartz in New York in 1948. Her parents fled France after the Nazi invasion, but returned a few years after her birth. Sinclair graduated in politics at the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) in Paris and in law at the University of Paris and went on to become a celebrated political journalist and television presenter. She inherited much of her grandfather's estate following the death of her mother in 2007. Sinclair, who was once married to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, and other members of the Rosenberg family have campaigned for years for the return of looted Nazi treasures.

Kim Willsher


Philip Oltermann in Munich

The GuardianTramp

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