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Swiss museum says it was named 'sole heir' to deceased German collector Gurlitt's trove of art

Police officers stand in front of a house where art collector Cornelius Gurlitt lived, in Munich, Germany, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Gurlitt, a reclusive German collector whose long-secret hoard of well over 1,000 artworks triggered an international uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis, died Tuesday. He was 81.Photo (AP Photo/dpa, Sven Hoppe)

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Police officers stand in front of a house where art collector Cornelius Gurlitt lived, in Munich, Germany, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Gurlitt, a reclusive German collector whose long-secret hoard of well over 1,000 artworks triggered an international uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis, died Tuesday. He was 81.Photo (AP Photo/dpa, Sven Hoppe)

BERLIN - A museum in Switzerland said Wednesday that it has been named the "unrestricted and unfettered sole heir" of a German art collector whose priceless hoard of long-hidden artworks last year set off an uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis.

The Kunstmuseum Bern, in the Swiss capital, said it was "surprised and delighted" at the appointment, of which it was informed by Cornelius Gurlitt's lawyer, Christoph Edel.

"At the same time, (we) 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," it said in a statement.

The museum said that the news "came like a bolt from the blue" as it had never previously had any dealings with Gurlitt, who died age 81 at his Munich apartment on Tuesday.

Edel's office declined to comment. It referred questions to Gurlitt's spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, who said his client summoned a notary early this year before he underwent heart surgery, with his lawyer also present, but that it was up to the Munich district court to determine whether there is a valid will.

The court said it hasn't yet received the will, but that if it is found to be valid a foreign heir has six months to decide whether or not to accept the bequest.

German investigators seized more than 1,000 artworks from Gurlitt's Munich apartment two years ago after chancing upon the trove of paintings, print and drawings by masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. Authorities disclosed the find only in November following a report by German magazine Focus.

Gurlitt initially insisted that he had rightfully inherited all of the works from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who at one point had acted as an art dealer for the Nazis.

But after months of legal wrangling, Gurlitt agreed last month to a deal with the German government under which experts would check whether any of the works he owned were looted by the Nazis — leading to possible restitution claims — while they remained in authorities' custody. All works cleared of suspicion would be returned to Gurlitt. The Bavarian Justice Ministry said Tuesday that the deal would be binding on all possible heirs.

The return of the released pictures to Gurlitt hadn't started at the time of his death, Holzinger said.

Experts who examined the pieces seized in Munich said they included both what the Nazis called "degenerate art" as well as looted art.

The Nazis took so-called degenerate art — mostly avant-garde modern art, such as expressionism — from museums and public institutions because it was deemed a corrupting influence on the German people. Looted art was stolen or bought for a pittance from Jewish collectors who were forced to sell under duress during the Third Reich.

According to its website, the Kunstmuseum Bern is home to works by Paul Klee, Picasso, Ferdinand Hodler and Meret Oppenheim. It describes itself as the oldest art museum in Switzerland, with a permanent collection covering eight centuries.

Also Wednesday, the Munich court ordered an autopsy on Gurlitt at prosecutors' request. Thomas Steinkraus-Koch, a spokesman for prosecutors, said they want to be sure of the cause of death although there is no indication of anything untoward, news agency dpa reported.

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Online:

Museum website: www.kunstmuseumbern.ch

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Geir Moulson contributed to this report.

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