How did Cornelius Gurlitt, who vowed never to let his paintings go willingly, end up cutting a deal with Germany that will see pieces of his Nazi-era art stash returned to their rightful owners? As the Wall Street Journal reveals, it's a story "filled with legal maneuvering, delicate negotiations, and personal appeals." When Gurlitt's story first broke, Germany came under intense pressure to fulfill the Washington Principles, requiring it to compensate victims of Nazi thefts. But as the country—now beyond the 30-year statute of limitations—couldn't force Gurlitt to return any stolen works, the case was looking bleak.
But nearly two years after he last saw his art (on March 1, 2012) and with his health failing, Gurlitt began to have a change of heart. He wanted to clear his and his father's names and see his beloved art again. And in December, a government official gave him a possible out: transfer his collection to a German foundation that would ferry any stolen works back to their owners and eventually install the rest in a museum. An agreement along those lines was reached in April, and Gurlitt was to have any "unproblematic" pieces returned without delay—though they still sit in a government warehouse. But when Gurlitt died earlier this month, his will, signed from his hospital bed in January, struck a blow to his homeland: It bestowed his entire estate not to a German museum, but a Swiss one he had no personal ties to; a former acquaintance is said to be a significant patron of it.