German Jew's heirs sue for stolen Renoir

Chicago Tribune 4 September 2011
By Dan Hinkel

In 1956, steel magnate Newton Korhumel and his wife, Irene, bought a florid country landscape by French impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir at a New York gallery. The painting hung proudly in their home in Lake Forest, Ill.

Now, there's a question as to whether the couple ever really owned the painting.

Irene Korhumel died in December, nine years after her husband. The executor of their estate turned to Christie's auction house in Chicago to sell the painting, created by an artist whose work routinely fetches millions of dollars.

But any potential sale is on hold, awaiting a possible claim by the heirs of a German textile mogul who, like many other Jews in mid-20th century Europe, lost his art collection to the Nazi onslaught, said Olaf Ossmann, a Swiss lawyer who represents the mogul's heirs.

Lawyers for the Korhumel estate filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago on Aug. 15 asking for official rights to the painting. Christie's has refused to relinquish it.

While Ossmann isn't sure whether his clients have any legal basis to force the painting's return, he said his clients are the rightful owners of the Renoir, one of the works textile manufacturer Richard Semmel sacrificed when he fled Germany in 1933.

"Mr. Semmel died with nothing," Ossmann said. "Friends had to pay for his funeral."

Nearly seven decades after the end of World War II, persecution and systematic theft by the Nazis continues to spark court cases and ownership controversies like the one that has thrown the Korhumels' Renoir into limbo.

While experts on Nazi theft say hundreds of thousands of artworks have never been returned to their rightful owners, efforts to retrieve them continue. A new group based in Milwaukee, for example, is leading an effort to document the loss of Jews' possessions and seek restitution. Aided by advances in technology, the group is driven by a sense of urgency as Holocaust survivors die and victims' heirs age.

"We're in a race against time," said Bobby Brown, executive director of the Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, known as Project HEART.

The controversy over the Renoir painting, known as "Paysage Pres de Cagnes" ("Landscape Near Cagnes") and probably painted in the early 1900s near the artist's home in southern France, reaches back to the political tumult of pre-World War II Berlin.

Semmel was a wealthy garment-maker - "the leading man for underwear in Berlin," said Ossmann - and a dedicated art collector.

In January 1933, Semmel was returning from a vacation in Switzerland when he was told at a German train station that his mansion was filled with police who were piqued by his Jewish roots and support for an opposition political party, Ossmann said.

Semmel fled to Switzerland and somehow regained a portion of his collection, while other pieces were stored in the Netherlands, Ossmann said. Cut off from his factory and income, Semmel liquidated his collection, selling paintings, including the Renoir landscape, at an Amsterdam auction house in 1933, Ossmann said.

As hostilities intensified, Semmel, whose wife died before he fled Germany, moved from Europe to Cuba and then to New York. His brother perished in the Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands, and Semmel's only heir upon his death in 1950 was a romantic partner from his final years, Ossmann said.

His current heirs are that woman's granddaughters: two women who live in Johannesburg, Ossmann said. He declined to name the women, and they are not identified in court records.

Though Semmel's painting was not hoisted off a wall by a Nazi soldier, like so many others, his heirs argue that he was unjustly forced to sell his collection to finance his flight from harm, Ossmann said.

That argument compelled the Dutch government in 2009 to return a painting from its national museum to Semmel's heirs. The painting, a portrait by Dutch artist Thomas de Keyser, had been sold in the 1933 auction along with the Renoir, Ossmann said.

The Renoir landscape ended up in New York, where Irene and Newton Korhumel bought it in March 1956 from a gallery that said it was from the estate of an Irving H. Vogel, according to the Korhumel estate's lawsuit.

Over more than five decades, the Korhumels had no reason to question their ownership of the painting, according to the family's lawsuit.

Semmel's heirs have not made a legal claim, and it was Christie's that told Ossmann of questions about the painting's provenance in late August, the Swiss lawyer said. Ossmann said he is investigating any potential claim, and he added that he always strives for a "reasonable solution."

A spokeswoman for Christie's declined to comment, as did members of the Korhumel family and lawyers for the estate.

No potential value is listed for the painting in court records, and art appraisers said a valuation is too complex to attempt without detailed research.

The purported path of the Renoir painting points to one of the many ways Jews lost property to the Third Reich, said Jonathan Petropoulos, a California scholar and author who studies Nazi theft.

While Adolf Hitler and other top officials called for the theft of specific paintings, the regime invented harsh taxes and emigration laws that stripped Jews of possessions of all kinds. Oppression turned to outright theft, and German civilians stole and sold Jews' possessions on the street during the war, he said. Petropoulos has estimated that Jews lost some 600,000 pieces of art to the Nazis, who used theft to dehumanize victims on the path toward the extermination of an estimated 6 million people.

Since the war, museums and collectors have returned art to survivors or heirs, but the law remains unsettled on these restitution rights, said Jennifer Kreder, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University who has worked on cases involving art looted by the Nazis. She added that museums have been willing to fight court cases using technical court maneuvers rather than depending only on the validity of heirs' claims.

Driven by the desire to catalog those claims while Holocaust survivors remain, Project HEART, which is funded partly by the Israeli government, has used archival research to compile a database of 2 million lost properties, including artworks, insurance policies and bank accounts, said Brown, the executive director. The database is the largest ever on Jewish losses during World War II, he said.

Brown said he hopes the data can eventually be used to make a case for further restitution for survivors and heirs, particularly from Eastern European governments that have resisted compensating victims. The goal of people who seek repayment for Nazi theft, he said, is "the closing of the circle."

The purported heirs to the Renoir, a painting that is now woven into the story of a Lake Forest family, are looking for their own past, Ossmann said.

"It's part of recovering their history," he said.
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