Painting Ordered Back to Greece

The New York Times 25 January 2004
Barry Meier

An El Greco painting displayed recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was returned Thursday to the Greek museum that owns it after a state judge dismissed a lawsuit claiming it had been stolen by Nazis at the end of World War II.

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met, said that the painting, "Mount Sinai," was returned to the Historical Museum of Crete, which had lent it to the Met for its El Greco exhibition, which closed Jan. 11.

The suit sought to keep the painting in the United States pending further investigation of its provenance. It was rejected under a federal statute that says a lawsuit cannot be used to seize or control a cultural object brought into this country by a nonprofit institution like a museum for temporary exhibition. Filed in New York State Supreme Court on Wednesday, the suit claimed that Germans had stolen the painting from its Hungarian Jewish owner at the end of the war.

In recent years numerous lawsuits have been filed to recover paintings looted during World War II. But this may be one of the most convoluted cases because of conflicting theories about who looted it and who owned it after the war.

In addition, the lawsuit was not filed by an heir of the painting's onetime owner, but by the son of an Austrian lawyer, now deceased, who once represented the owner's family. "We know it was stolen at the end of the war," said Konstantin Akinsha, a researcher in Washington who specializes in looted art. "We just don't know by whom."

"Mount Sinai" (1570-72) is an oil and tempera depiction of the peaks of Mount Sinai and a small group of pilgrims greeting a figure resembling John the Baptist.

There is no dispute that Baron Ferenc Hatvany purchased the work in the 1920's and deposited it and other paintings in a Budapest bank during the war for safekeeping. Many of those paintings were looted at the war's end and dispersed throughout Europe. The lawsuit claimed
that the El Greco was taken by retreating Germans.

But research gathered by the Met indicated that the painting might have been stolen not by Germans but by Russians.

Mr. Holzer said the information that the Met used, from sources like the Art Loss Registry, a database of stolen art, suggested that Baron Hatvany later repurchased the El Greco. But Mr. Akinsha said he believes that Met's research is incorrect and that Baron Hatvany never bought the painting back and that it was sold by others.

"Mount Sinai" was put up for auction at Sotheby's in London by a Viennese collector in 1988. It was not purchased then, but was subsequently bought by a foundation and donated to the museum on Crete, the island on which El Greco was born.

The lawsuit filed earlier this week was as mysterious as the the painting's provenance. It was filed by Joram Deutsch, a Swiss citizen whose father had represented the Hatvany family in reparations claims against the German government.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Deutsch said that in the 1960's the German government had accused his father, Hans Deutsch, of falsifying claims involving Baron Hatvany's paintings. Mr. Deutsch said that his father, who died in 2002, was subsequently acquitted. He added that
he believed that proving the El Greco was stolen by Germans would also show that the German government had used the charges against his father as a way of reducing its overall wartime compensation payments.

The case was filed for Mr. Deutsch by Edward Fagan, a New Jersey lawyer. Mr. Fagan has brought several Holocaust-related suits to successful conclusions but has also generated controversy. Mr. Fagan did not return a telephone call Thursday night to a Zurich hotel where he was staying.
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