Experts to discuss reclaiming Nazi-looted artworks

Cleveland Jewish News 7 May 2010
By Marilyn H Karfeld
Senior Staff Reporter

An important Cubist painting by French artist Fernand Leger is part of the collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art. It’s also one of hundreds of works posted on the museum’s website whose ownership is murky or unknown during the World War II-era.

Decades ago, Leger’s “The Aviator” was in the possession of prominent art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, a German Jew forced to flee when the Nazis came to power. A 1929 photo in an art book clearly shows the Leger painting hanging on the wall of Flechtheim’s study. In 1941, “The Aviator” turned up in the hands of a Swiss art dealer.

The Cleveland museum, which bought the colorful work in 1981, has acknowledged the gap in the painting’s provenance or history of ownership. Who is the rightful owner? Did Flechtheim, who died in 1937, sell it? Did ownership transfer under duress, or did the Nazis seize the work? No one knows for sure.

The Leger painting will likely be part of a May 11 panel discussion, “Reclaiming Holocaust Art: Past, Present and Future” at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. Organized and moderated by Prof. Brian Glassman of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, the program will feature experts on securing the return of artworks looted by the Nazis from Jewish families during World War II.

Steven Litt, Plain Dealer art and architecture critic who has written about the Leger work and its Flechtheim connection, will be among the panelists. Also speaking is Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University College of Law and founding president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. She writes and teaches about art, cultural heritage and the law and is an international expert on the movement of art during war and peace.

Howard Spiegler, a lawyer and plaintiffs’ counsel in some of the most high-profile art restitution cases worldwide, also is on the panel.

While the Cleveland museum has offered to return “The Aviator” if a rightful owner can be found, the burden of proof rests on the person who thinks his art was looted. Not on the museum.

Thea Klestadt, a Beachwood resident who died in 2005 at age 92, knew how hard it is to prove ownership. Flechtheim was her cherished uncle, and Klestadt, who escaped Germany in 1937, was extremely proud of his place in art history. His strong-featured profile was reportedly used for the caricature that appeared on the poster announcing the Nazis’ infamous 1938 “Degenerate Art” exhibit on modern art.

Before her death, Klestadt told the CJN that when she traveled to museums in New York and Washington, she recognized many paintings as ones that once hung in her uncle’s gallery in Germany. She never made a claim on “The Aviator,” nor did she know if her uncle sold it to someone else or how it left his possession. But she recognized how difficult a process it would be to prove the work belonged to her family.

Maria Altmann learned that first-hand. A California resident and Holocaust survivor, she was the niece of wealthy sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who owned a collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt. The Nazis seized the Klimt paintings when they took control of Austria. Eventually six of the paintings – among them famous portraits of Altmann’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer – turned up in the possession of the Austrian government.

As her uncle’s heir, Altmann tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the works from the Austrian government. Finally, she sued in U.S. district court in California.

In 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court said there is no sovereign immunity for Austria in this situation and that Altmann could sue in U.S. federal court to recover her Nazi-looted art, estimated to be worth over $300 million. The case then settled in a court of arbitration, and in 2006, Austria turned five paintings over to Altmann, says Glassman, a member of the art law section of the Association of American Law Schools and also a glass artist himself.

While the high court did not rule on the merits of Altmann’s case, the ruling made it possible for Americans to sue other sovereign states over stolen property. The decision opened U.S. courts to claims over disputed artwork because governments can no longer hide behind the sovereign immunity act, Glassman says.

Altmann sold the most famous of the Klimt paintings, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” for $135 million to the Neue Galerie in New York.

Howard Spiegler’s firm, Herrick, Feinstein LLP of New York, was involved in the negotiations between the Altmann family and Ronald Lauder of the Neue Galerie, Glassman says.

While the story of restitution of stolen art is not a new one, Glassman says there are some recent legal successes. In 2006, the Herrick, Feinstein law firm helped recover numerous works from the Dutch government that were claimed by the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, a renowned Holocaust-era art dealer from Amsterdam who died in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

Some of Goudstikker’s reclaimed Old Master paintings, looted by the Nazis, notably Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, were on display last summer at The Jewish Museum in New York. Spiegler has also been very involved at the international level in writing rules for the return of stolen artworks, Glassman says.

During the Holocaust, artwork was sold at fire-sale prices or abandoned as Jews fled Europe, he says. Sometimes the art was exchanged for exit visas. Sometimes the visas were promised but never materialized.

“The selling of art did not cease during the war,” Glassman says. “A lot of people got rich at this time. The Germans were so meticulous about appearances, one of the war’s bitter ironies, making it look like these were arms-length transactions when they were anything but.”

Of late, more information is available, as European countries have been more willing to open their archives, says Glassman. There are also more searchable electronic databases that can help identify and locate lost artwork.

Last summer an international conference on looted art and Holocaust-era assets was held in Prague, near the site of Terezin, an infamous Nazi concentration camp. The gathering assessed the progress made in art restitution in the 11 years since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets and renewed the international commitment to that effort.

“Holocaust art is a subset of the larger question of the movement of art in wartime and peacetime, from the Parthenon sculptures to the looting of museums in Iraq during the (current) war,” says Glassman.

Recovering looted art is a field fraught with difficulties, including the mere passage of time, evidence being lost or destroyed, heirs who have passed away, and statutes of limitation on making a claim, notes Glassman. “You cannot pursue these claims forever. It’s a race against time.”
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