BERLIN — Cornelius Gurlitt, the German recluse whocaptured the art world’s attention last fall after it was revealed that he had kept hidden for decades a collection of 19th- and 20th-century European masterworks amassed by his father under the Nazis in his Munich apartment, died on Tuesday at his home in Munich. He was 81.
His spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, confirmed the death.
Mr. Gurlitt died without known heirs, leaving behind a tangle of questions about what will become of the art, some of it in the custody of the German government, some of it still in his possession and some of it subject to restitution claims.
Outrage flared in November after the German newsweekly Focus broke the story of Mr. Gurlitt’s collection and the authorities’ failure to reveal the existence of approximately 1,280 paintings and drawings — by Chagall, Picasso, Matisse, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and others — that had been confiscated from his apartment. Some of the works were unknown at the time, having never been entered in international art catalogs.
Matthias Henkel, a spokesman for a task force formed by German authorities to help investigate the provenance of the collection, said Tuesday that its work would go on since the moral obligation to clarify history remains.
Mr. Holzinger said it would be “up to a court to determine whether there is a valid will or contract of inheritance.” Under Bavarian law, if there was no such contract, a court will be appointed to decide who, if anyone, could inherit Mr. Gurlitt’s property.
The artworks were seized in a tax evasion investigation in February 2012 from the apartment where Mr. Gurlitt had lived quietly for decades, occasionally selling a painting but otherwise hoarding a collection assembled by his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of four dealers allowed under the Nazis to buy and sell the modern, or “degenerate,” art they officially so despised.
Many works in the Gurlitt collection were plundered from German museums, but scores are thought to have belonged to Jewish collectors who were forced to sell their art way below market value as they tried to flee the Nazis or simply had them confiscated before or after being expelled and murdered.
The Jewish heirs mounted the loudest cry after the collection came to light. The authorities in Bavaria and embarrassed officials in Berlin swiftly turned the job of investigating provenance over to the international task force, which is continuing its investigation under an agreement reached several weeks ago with Mr. Gurlitt. Hundreds of his artworks have been posted on a government website, lostart.de, but his lawyers say that only four claims have been received. Not one picture has been returned.
Mr. Gurlitt had a serious heart condition and was hospitalized in December. He had been under constant medical care since being released from the hospital some weeks ago at his request, Mr. Holzinger said.
Due to his failing health, Mr. Gurlitt had been appointed and was represented by an official guardian, Christoph Edel, in recent negotiations that allowed the investigation of provenance to continue, despite a court ordering that the artworks be released to their legal owner, Mr. Gurlitt. His only sibling, a sister, Benita, died childless in 2012.
Monika Grütters, who oversees cultural affairs for Germany’s federal government, issued a statement on Tuesday lauding Mr. Gurlitt for allowing the investigation of his collection. “As a private person, he set an example in his commitment to moral responsibility in seeking out fair and just solutions,” the statement said. “For this step, he was rightly accorded recognition and respect.”
The German authorities have held the trove at an undisclosed location, citing security reasons for the secrecy. In February, an additional 238 works — some of them said to be top-quality paintings — were removed from Mr. Gurlitt’s second home, in Salzburg, Austria, and also relocated to an unnamed location.
Mr. Gurlitt was last known to have sold a painting in December 2011, when the “Lion Tamer,” by Beckmann, fetched 864,000 euros, or $1.17 million, at an auction in Cologne, Germany. The auction house, Lempertz, said it had brokered an agreement for some of the money to go to heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to leave Germany and died a poor man in London in 1937.
Although reporters from around the world camped outside his Munich apartment for weeks after his art collection was revealed, Mr. Gurlitt gave only one interview, to the news weekly Der Spiegel. In that conversation, he revealed little about his life, saying that the only thing he had loved were his pictures.
He came from a family renowned for activity in music, art and literature back into the 19th century. His father was deemed a quarter Jewish under the Nuremberg race laws, and he was dismissed from two museum posts by the Nazis.
Yet he was also one of the few Germans granted permission by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, to sell confiscated art. Sales to foreign buyers were meant to fill Nazi coffers, but art historians have documented many sales in Germany, as well as proceeds pocketed by the dealers involved.
While Mr. Gurlitt insisted in the interview with Der Spiegel that he would not part with any of the works, the agreement he reached this year with government officials paved the way for looted works to be returned to their rightful owners, regardless of the ultimate fate of his collection.