The £4m paintings with charmed lives

The Telegraph 6 September 2004
Will Bennett

An art collection worth more than £4 million that was thought to have been lost more than 50 years ago has been discovered by chance as museum staff struggled to save paintings from a flood.

The survival of Max Steinthal's collection is being hailed as "miraculous". The Nazis wanted to steal the pictures, they survived a firestorm caused by Allied bombing and the Communists who later seized power in East Germany almost expropriated them.

Now almost 50 works of art that belonged to Mr Steinthal, one of Germany's most influential bankers, have been returned to his descendants and most are to be auctioned by Sotheby's in London later this year.

The lost works include Las Tres Velas, a romantic seascape by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, which is expected to fetch up to £2.5 million on Nov 16.

Also for sale will be La Raccolta delle Zucche, by Giovanni Segantini, which is estimated at £1.2 million to £1.8 million. Mr Steinthal was a leading figure in the expansion of Deutsche Bank and only resigned from its board aged 85 in 1935 because of the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Four years later he and his wife Fanny were forced to sell their Berlin villa and in 1940 he died in a guest house a few days before he was due to be sent to a concentration camp.

His widow appointed her son-in-law as her executor and he sent the art collection to his home in Dresden for safety. Soon afterwards the Nazis seized all the remaining Steinthal property in Berlin but were unaware that the pictures had left the capital.

In 1945 the bombing of Dresden by the RAF and the Americans caused a firestorm that destroyed 85 per cent of the city and killed tens of thousands of people.

The collection somehow survived but shortly afterwards the Soviet army arrived. The new Communist regime in East Germany confiscated the son-in-law's house and all his property but because the crates containing the art collection were labelled as belonging to the Steinthals the pictures narrowly escaped expropriation.

Uncertain as to what they should do with the collection, Communist officials sent the seven crates to the Dresden Gemaldegalerie, a local museum. They were stored unopened in a basement and remained forgotten until long after the re-unification of Germany.

Two years ago a new threat to the survival of the collection appeared when some of central Europe's worst floods in decades swept through Dresden, entering the Gemaldegalerie's storerooms.

As staff worked to save works of art from the water, a researcher noticed that a box she was carrying was labelled "Steinthal". She later unearthed the story of the paintings' survival and the descendants of Max and Fanny Steinthal were tracked down.

Yesterday the collection that survived against all the odds went on public display for the first time, appropriately at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
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