Nazi Victim’s Heirs Urge Sweden to Settle 7-Year Art Dispute

Bloomberg 17 March 2009
By Catherine Hickley

The heirs of a Jewish businessman forced to flee Germany before World War II accused a Swedish museum of using “delaying tactics” in a seven-year dispute over a Nazi-looted Emil Nolde painting in its collection.

Otto Nathan Deutsch fled to Amsterdam in late 1938 or early 1939, leaving behind his possessions, according to the heirs’ lawyer, David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York. Deutsch never got his belongings back. The painting “Blumengarten (Utenwarf)” (“Flowergarden (Utenwarf)”) surfaced in Switzerland in 1967 and was sold at auction to Sweden’s Moderna Museet, Rowland said. He estimates its value at $4 million.

The heirs first contacted the Moderna Museet in 2002. Two of the claimants were imprisoned in concentration camps as children and are now aged over 80, according to Rowland. One of the heirs, Ricardo Lorca-Deutsch, asked Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth to intervene and return the painting, according to a copy of his March 12 letter.

“After seven years of waiting and delaying tactics, the time has come that you speak up for us,” Lorca-Deutsch told Liljeroth in his letter, written in agreement with the other heirs. “Our patience is exhausted.”

Altogether, the Nazis stole about 650,000 works, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. Sweden is one of 44 governments that agreed on the 1998 Washington principles on Holocaust-era assets. Under that non-binding accord, nations agreed to achieve a “just and fair solution” with the prewar owners of art seized by the Nazis that was never returned.

Response to Heirs

The Nolde claim is the first of its kind in Sweden, said Marcus Hartmann, an aide to Liljeroth. The letter arrived at the Ministry of Culture yesterday, he said.

“As I am sure you understand we need some time to read and consider it,” Hartmann said by e-mail. “Thereafter we will respond directly to the heirs. Our response is basically the same as it was. The Swedish government has assigned Moderna Museet to solve this matter.”

When the lawyers first filed a claim to the Moderna Museet for the painting’s return in 2002, the museum referred the decision to the Swedish government. The government determined in July 2007 that the museum must resolve the claim with the family.

“The Moderna Museet is very seriously and actively searching for a resolution of this matter, including the task of finding a potential sponsor,” Maria Morberg, the museum’s spokeswoman, said by e-mail today. “The proposals made by Rowland cannot be considered just and fair.”

Donation Offered

According to Lorca-Deutsch, the heirs have offered to sell the painting to the museum for 25 percent less than market value. They also have proposed compensating the museum for the amount it spent on acquiring the painting. In a separate proposal, the heirs agreed to donate $200,000 to the museum if the painting was returned, he said.

Most recently, Lorca-Deutsch said in his letter, the heirs found a sponsor willing to buy the painting and loan it to the museum for three to five years, with the option of renegotiating a second loan after the end of the term.

“Again our proposed solution is being stalled by the museum by demanding a loan term of 10 to 20 years,” Lorca- Deutsch wrote. “Not only is this unrealistic but it also renders the impression that the Moderna Museet is not interested in finding a resolution to this matter.”

Vibrant Flowers

The 1917 painting, one of about 35 Nolde works in the Moderna Museet’s collection, shows a flowerbed blazing with luxuriant reds, oranges, blues and pinks.

Nolde, born in 1867, was briefly a member of the group of German expressionists known as Die Bruecke. He was banned by the Nazis from exhibiting his work, but was rehabilitated in Germany after the war. He died in 1956.

When Deutsch fled, he arranged for his possessions, including two Nolde works and three or four more paintings, to be shipped to him in Amsterdam, Rowland said.

They never arrived and Deutsch died in poverty, of natural causes, in 1943. Informed by the shipping company that Deutsch’s possessions had been bombed and destroyed in the war, the heirs accepted a “small” amount of damage compensation from Germany in 1962 for the loss, Rowland said.

Two paintings by Nolde that were among Deutsch’s missing assets re-emerged at Galerie Roman Norbert Ketterer in Stuttgart, and were sold at auction in Lugano, Switzerland, a few years later, Rowland said.

The Swedish government bought “Blumengarten (Utenwarf),” while “Mohn und Rosen” (“Poppy and Roses”) was sold to a private buyer, he said.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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