Nazi loot claims: a French museum is trying to raise money to buy a Canaletto for the second time

The Art Newspaper 3 June 2004
Martha Lufkin

The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Strasbourg is seeking funds to compensate the heirs of the Jewish owner of a Canaletto painting in its collection which was recently identified as having been looted by the Nazis in Vienna after Austrian annexation in 1938.

The painting, on copper, is just one of four Canaletto paintings that Nazis stole from Bernhard Altmann, a Viennese cashmere sweater manufacturer, when they confiscated his entire estate in 1938 after he had fled to London. The museum, which is owned by the city, agreed to the principle of restitution after confirming that the painting had been looted, but is seeking to keep the work, Corinne Hershkovitch, attorney for the city of Strasbourg, told The Art Newspaper.

“The case was clear. The city wanted to face it properly,” she said. The case is proceeding as a settlement negotiation, not a lawsuit, she said. Lacking immediate funds to buy the Canaletto from the Altmann heirs, the city requested a period of a year and a half in which to raise funds for the purchase. The heirs agreed. New regulations in France promoting patronage may be helpful in achieving the desired subscription, Ms Hershkovitch said.

The settlement is not yet final. While the price to be paid to the heirs has not been firmly agreed on, it is expected to be roughly the current value of the painting reduced by the purchase price paid by the museum in 1987, said E. Randol Schoenberg, lead attorney in the US for the heirs. If the city is unable to raise the money, it has agreed to return the painting to the heirs.

The painting, a view of La Salute in Venice, was bought by the museum in 1987 for FFr3.5 million (then $588,000) from two collectors, Othon Kaufmann and François Schlageter. They had fled Germany, joined the British army, and eventually became patrons of the Strasbourg museum, donating art from their collection to it and to the Louvre. They had bought the Canaletto in 1949 from Hermann Voss, the former head of the Wiesbaden Museum whom Hitler appointed in 1943 to direct the collection he was amassing for his grand museum of art, to be built in Linz and to contain loot from Nazi-controlled territories.

The Strasbourg Canaletto appears in the catalogue of the Nazi sale of Altmann’s entire estate by Dorotheum, the Viennese auction house, on 17-22 June and 19-21 July, 1938. The statement in the catalogue, that the June sale was to take place at Altmann’s residence at “Kopfgasse 1”, Vienna, confirmed the painting’s provenance to the museum. Three other Canaletto paintings taken from Bernhard Altmann, which were included in the sale, are still missing. The Strasbourg Canaletto is one of only nine works painted by the artist on copper.

In 2000, in a previous Nazi loot claim in which spoliation “was not obvious,” Ms Hershkovitch said, the city returned a work by Gustav Klimt to the family of a Viennese Jew, after litigation. Recently, the heirs of Bernhard Altmann have successfully recovered a number of other paintings, Mr Schoenberg said, including an early portrait of a woman by Gustav Klimt which was returned by Austria on 4 May from the Belvedere and which will be included in a Sotheby’s sale in London on 21 June.

After the 1938 Dorotheum sale, it became the property of Gustav Uccicky, the Nazi-era film director and illegitimate son of Klimt, who donated it to the Belvedere in 1961. A work from the Altmann collection by Egger-Lienz was returned by the city of Linz, and paintings by Waldmüller and Rahl were returned by Vienna. Germany is returning a painting by Lenbach, Mr Schoenberg said.

The 1938 sales catalogue for the Bernhard Altmann sale bears a swastika next to the name Dorotheum. “The Dorotheum was owned by the State and under Nazi control from 1938 to 1945,” said a Dorotheum provenance researcher, in a telephone interview. “Therefore, it took part in the sale of Jewish property. The Dorotheum itself was never active in the seizure of Jewish assets. Nazi authorities consigned the works of art to the Dorotheum, and the Dorotheum paid over the [net] proceeds to the Nazi authorities”. After the privatisation of the Dorotheum in 2001-02, an extensive research project was started by the new owners, and since the autumn of 2003, provenance research has been conducted for objects consigned to the auction house.
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