This article is from the archive of our partner .

Cornelius Gurlitt, who inherited a massive trove of art most likely stolen by Nazis, passed away on Tuesday at age 81 — and left the entirety of his collection to the Bern Art Museum in Switzerland. 

The museum, which had no relationship with Gurlitt, issued a statement saying the news came "like a bolt from the blue," adding that the gift — worth up to 1 billion euros by some estimates — is also something of a burden: 

The Board of Trustees and Directors of Kunstmuseum Bern are surprised and delighted, but at the same time 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. They will not be in a position to issue a more detailed statement before first consulting the relevant files and making contact with the appropriate authorities.

According to the Munich court, Gurlitt left his will with a German notary several months ago. The court will examine the document and decided how to proceed sometime in the next week. 

In 2012, authorities found more than 1,200 works of art — including pieces by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Otto Dix and others — in Gurlitt's home in Munich. Gurlitt's father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was a notorious dealers of "degenerate" art who was allowed to buy and sell modern art that had been banned by the Nazi's. It was believed that nearly all of his collection was destroyed or lost during the war, but the discovery that the younger Gurlitt had been holding on to them for decades set off a firestorm. Of the nearly 1,500 works ultimately discovered (Gurlitt had more art hidden in a second home) about 600 were under investigation as probable Nazi loot.

In February, German authorities finally reached a deal with Gurlitt, saying they would return hundreds of pieces being held by Bavarian officials, and assign a task force to determine the ownership of the remaining works. That plan, reports the New York Times, remains in place, despite his death:

The agreement Mr. Gurlitt reached with German authorities carries over to whoever inherits the collection, said Winfried Bausback, Bavaria’s justice minister, including the museum. This means that research into provenance can continue and eventual restitution should be possible. “With this agreement, he ensured that the research into the history of the pictures would be allowed to continue in any case,” Mr. Bausback said in a statement. “This allows for the Nazi crimes to be examined and victims to make their claims, even beyond Mr. Gurlitt’s death.”

Those who suspect that art stolen from their families might have ended up in the Gurlitt home, can scan the collection online, via the Lost Art website.  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to