Gestapo-Looted Pissarro Seized in Swiss Safe Goes on Auction

Bloomberg 2 June 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Gisela Bermann-Fischer waited almost 70 years to get back a painting by Camille Pissarro stolen from her family’s home in Vienna by the Gestapo in 1938.

She recovered “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps” after a quest that pitched her into a battle of lawyers’ letters with Bruno Lohse, a Nazi art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to loot treasures in occupied France, and finally led to a Zurich bank vault, where the picture was stashed in a safe. Prosecutors sealed the safe as part of a continuing three-nation probe into associates of Lohse suspected of extortion and money-laundering.

Now 80, Bermann-Fischer will auction the 1903 painting at Christie’s International’s sale of impressionist and modern art in London on June 23. Its value is estimated at between 900,000 pounds ($1.45 million) and 1.5 million pounds. Bermann-Fischer says it cost her at least 500,000 Swiss francs ($466,000) to recover the Pissarro, mainly in lawyers’ fees. At no point during her quest could she be sure of getting the artwork back.

“The painting had been in the family since 1907,” Bermann-Fischer said in a telephone interview from Zurich, where she lives. “It was restituted to me 100 years later. I have invested such a tremendous amount over the past 13 years, so much energy and so much of my finances, that it would be frivolous to keep it.”

The Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks altogether, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. The Art Loss Register, a database of stolen art, lists 70,000 works lost in World War II that are still being sought by the owners.

Thomas Mann’s Publisher

Bermann-Fischer’s grandfather was Samuel Fischer, founder of S. Fischer Verlag, a German publishing house whose authors included Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. Samuel Fischer bought “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps” from the art dealer Paul Cassirer in March 1907, according to Cassirer’s archives.

“My grandfather was a man of letters, and he was a very modern man who loved the time he was living in -- whether it was music, art or literature,” Bermann-Fischer said. “That is how he came to collect Impressionists, advised by Cassirer.”

Samuel Fischer’s son-in-law, Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, took over the publishing house in 1932. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, many S. Fischer Verlag authors were banned and emigrated, their books having been burned by the Nazis. The family fled Berlin for Vienna in 1935, then escaped again in 1938 to Sweden via Switzerland and later moved to the U.S.

“Recovering the painting, I found out much about what happened to my family, having to flee, being persecuted, losing everything,” Gisela Bermann-Fischer said.

Gestapo Theft

Bermann-Fischer is slight and elegant, with a thick shock of well-groomed dark hair. A former actress, she has a voice that sounds deceptively frail until she hears something she doesn’t like, when it acquires a ringing, authoritative tone.

She was nine when her family fled Vienna on the night before Hitler’s army marched into Austria. They left all their possessions behind, including paintings and her father’s private library. Gestapo agents came after they had fled to loot the art: a Lovis Corinth painting of flowers, an El Greco, a Paul Gauguin and the Pissarro.

“I was born into a family which had a central place in the cultural and literary life in Berlin,” said Bermann-Fischer. “And yet I experienced this family while I was growing up as uprooted, as outsiders. Overall there was an atmosphere of loss, a feeling of not being part of a society. My parents were always about to pack up our house and flee.

“Getting a looted painting back into the family was about putting things in order,” she said. “Nothing else could ever be returned or repaired.”

Missing Pissarro

The Nazis sold the paintings they had stolen from the Fischers at a 1940 auction in Vienna. Bermann-Fischer’s father began his search for them in 1947, placing advertisements in magazines and contacting relevant authorities in the U.S., Germany, France and Austria. Many of the pictures were returned over the years through U.S. restitution processes.

The Pissarro, though, never showed up. Gisela Bermann- Fischer took over the search after her father’s death in 1995. The only evidence it had survived the war had been in 1984, when it surfaced briefly at an exhibition at the Fondation de L’Hermitage in Lausanne. The catalog listed the painting as part of a Swiss private collection. Bermann-Fischer didn’t discover that it had been on public display until long after the show.

“I don’t think we’ll ever find out from where to where the painting was transported over the years,” Bermann-Fischer said. “It truly was hidden. I think the exhibition at l’Hermitage Lausanne in 1984 was a test run, to see whether the original owners or any heirs were still on the lookout for the paintings and would make a claim.”

War Crimes

At that time, the painting was in the possession of Lohse, an art dealer who had looted works for the Nazis in France during World War II. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the art-confiscation unit where Lohse worked, seized almost 22,000 objects in France, according to U.S. government figures.

Imprisoned for war crimes until 1949, Lohse resumed his prewar work in the 1950s. He died in Munich on March 19, 2007, before prosecutors could question him. He was 95.

Bermann-Fischer was approached two months before his death by two men, associates of Lohse, who said they knew the painting’s whereabouts and offered to help her recover it in return for a fee. Instead of accepting, she filed a complaint with Munich prosecutors.

The men, an art dealer and an art historian, are under investigation on suspicion of extortion, according to Munich prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz. The dealer is also under investigation for money-laundering and breach of trust.

Liechtenstein Foundation

The safe, in the Zuercher Kantonalbank on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, was registered to a Liechtenstein trust called Schoenart Anstalt that Lohse controlled. The trust is still under investigation, Lutz said. A Liechtenstein court ordered the painting to be returned to Bermann-Fischer in 2007. She says the Pissarro may have been in the vault of the Zuercher Kantonalbank since the 1970s.

“There are probably thousands of paintings, still in safes, waiting for the passing away of the last possible claimants,” Bermann-Fischer said.

Few heirs have the persistence to conduct the kind of campaign that Bermann-Fischer has led, said Gunnar Schnabel, a Berlin-based lawyer who specializes in art-restitution cases.

“How many people would sustain a battle lasting years against former Nazi art dealers, their secret trustees and dubious lawyers to get a picture back?” Schnabel asked. “Only a very few extraordinary, cosmopolitan people like Gisela Bermann-Fischer.”

Seine View

The Pissarro is one of the artist’s last works, produced on an overcast morning from his wheelchair in a room overlooking the Seine. Dirk Bohl, the managing director of Christie’s in Zurich, said it is an important work as it shows Pissarro kept his artistic abilities until the end of his life. He described the estimated price as “conservative” because of market conditions and said museums may be among potential buyers.

“Not only is it a beautiful painting, its provenance reveals all 20th-century history,” Bohl said. “The world will now see it for the first time in 100 years.”

Its reappearance cleared up another mystery for Bermann- Fischer -- one that has lingered since she was nine.

“I remembered a green blob on the lower left side of the painting as being someone’s wild green hair,” Bermann-Fischer said. “But I was quite small and the painting was quite high up in our dining room. In fact it is a little chimney on the bank of the Seine, with smoke coming out of it.”

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