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German owner of stolen Jewish art dies at 81

BERLIN  (JTA) — The 81-year-old German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, whose uncovered trove of early 20th-century works shocked the world last fall, died Tuesday in his Munich home.

His death, several months after heart bypass surgery, according to German news reports, comes as some of the works are in the process of being returned to the heirs of Jewish collectors.

Some 1,400 works were confiscated from his home in 2012 the course of an investigation for tax evasion. Other works were subsequently found in Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg, Austria. The investigation is now closed, due to his death.

Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was an art dealer on assignment to the Nazis. When Hildebrand Gurlitt died in 1956, his son inherited the collection, which includes works by such greats as Picasso, Dürer, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beckmann and Matisse.

With strong suspicions that some of the works had been stolen, art provenance researchers and restitution advocates around the world demanded swift action by Germany. The federal government established a provenance task force of world renowned experts to deal with the case.

Gurlitt — described as a loner — insisted his collection was legitimate.  But he also started the process of parting from some of them. In April he signed an agreement with the state of Bavaria and the federal government according to which the provenance of all works would be researched, paving the way for the return of the paintings to heirs of the rightful owners.

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