The Battle for Looted Jewish Artwork Intensifies

The Jewish Voice 4 April 2013
By Fern Sidman

With an estimated worth of $100 million

As has occurred on multiple occasions over the last few decades, once again, valued artwork owned by Jews in pre-Holocaust Europe has been the focus of a protracted legal imbroglio.

As was reported in the New York Post, the German state of Bavaria has assumed a recalcitrant posture as it pertains to returning a famed painting done by Pablo Picasso called “Madame Soler” to the family of Felix Mendelssohn, the legendary 19th-century classical composer. He is best known for his overture for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Presently, a lawsuit has been filed in Manhattan federal court against Bavaria over their refusal to return the painting of three of Mendelssohn's relatives. With an estimated worth of $100 million, “Madame Soler” is a 1903 portrait that Picasso did during his popular “Blue Period.”

The suit states that the previous owner of the iconic painting was Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a Jewish banker and a relative of Felix Mendelssohn’s. Amongst the plaintiffs in the suit are Queens homeowner, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, who holds both American and Swedish citizenship.

Court papers reveal that beginning in the early 1900s, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy assiduously assembled a “singular private modern art collection” of approximately 60 works by such exemplary artists such as Monet, Renoir, Picasso and van Gogh.

Prior to his death of a heart attack in 1935, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy made the painful decision to liquidate his impressive collection as the Nazi party rose to prominence in Germany and began to seize the assets of Jewish owned banks, thus decimating his cash flow.

The NY Post also reports that in 1964, Madame Soler” was eventually sold to the Bavarian State Paintings Collection from the Manhattan apartment of Justin Thannhauser, a Berlin art dealer who fled Germany in 1937. During the war, the painting was consigned him. The sale of the painting to the Bavarian government was “through its agent and incoming director,” who’s identified in the suit as “former Nazi party member Halldor Soehner.”

The court papers also charge that, “When it acquired ‘Madame Soler’ in 1964, Bavaria was planning to sell secretly some 113 paintings that leading former Nazi officials like Herman Göring and Martin Bormann had owned, and to auction these works to unsuspecting buyers to raise money to acquire modern artworks like ‘Madame Soler,’” .

“With ex-Nazi Halldor Soehner directing operations, Bavaria auctioned 106 of these works in 1966-67 by concealing the ownership history of these paintings so that prospective buyers remained unaware that notorious Nazi leaders once had owned them — and that the Nazis in turn may have acquired these works from persecuted Jews”, the papers add.

Although Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants are embroiled in intense legal wrangling with the Bavarian government over the return of “Madame Soler”, they had previously won a $5 million settlement after suing the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum over two other Picassos from his collection. According to the lawsuit, Bavaria has remained adamant in its refusal to return “Madame Soler” and has not agreed to submit the dispute to Germany’s Limbach Commission, which hears claims over Nazi-looted art.

John Byrne Jr, the attorney for the plaintiffs said, “This is a case of great historical importance involving Germany’s most famous Jewish family. We are perplexed and disappointed by Bavaria’s failure to properly address the important issues involved in this matter.”

A spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

While stubbornly holding on to Jewish owned artwork for over 70 years, some museums in Europe are now beginning the process of returning such works to the owner’s heirs.

According to a recent report in The Guardian newspaper of London, France has agreed to return seven paintings stolen, or forcibly appropriated by the Nazis from their Jewish owners in the 1930s to their families. Four of the seven paintings had been hanging in the Louvre in Paris for decades, known as the world’s most foremost art museum.

The report discloses the fact that the paintings were destined to be displayed in an art gallery that Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler planned to build in his native Austria.

As many legitimate heirs of Jewish art collectors who lived in pre-Nazi Europe are now initiating lawsuits against museums who have been reluctant to return the highly valued paintings in question, some museums find themselves with no choice but to hand over the stolen works. As part of the renewed effort by the French government to return looted or misappropriated artworks to their rightful owners, they are starting with these seven paintings.

The Guardian reports that six of the seven works being handed back belonged to Robert Neumann, an Austrian Jew who fled to France and then Cuba, selling some of his collection to fund his escape. The paintings will be given to Neumann’s grandson, Tom Selldorff, 82, who lives in the United States.

The seventh work, by the German painter Pieter-Jansz van Asch, belonged to Josef Wiener, a Prague Jew who died in a German concentration camp, and whose collection was sold by the Nazis in 1941.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis purloined about 100,000 paintings, sculptures and other valuable objects in Jewish private collections in Europe. Some were stolen, others were sold under pressure, often to fund an escape from German occupation and the death camps.

In January of this year, a Viennese newspaper called Der Standard reported that the Jewish Museum of Vienna has been in possession of hundreds of books and works of art that may have been stolen by the Nazis.

Der Standard reported that a screening program that started in 2007, years after other Austrian museums began combing their collections for works taken from their rightful owners, had determined that about 500 works of art and 900 books are of dubious origin.

It cited in particular paintings by Jehudo Epstein, who, while abroad in 1936, entrusted 172 works to industrialist Bernhard Altmann for safekeeping. Altmann fled the country in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and his factory was “Aryanized,” the paper said. The Nazis confiscated the paintings and in some cases erased the signature of the artist.

Epstein died in South Africa in 1945. After 1947, his widow tried in vain to track down the paintings, some of which were later sold at auction by Dorotheum, a huge Austrian auction house, the paper said. One of them, “Madchen mit blonden Zopfen” ‏(The Girl With Blonde Braids‏), was purchased by gallery owner and restaurateur Kurt Kalb.

Several others are now in the Jewish Museum’s collection, the paper said, citing information it got from the museum after many requests.
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