The German government announced on Tuesday that two 18th century paintings – sold by a Jewish art collector to the Nazis – will not be returned to the heir of the collector.
The announcement by the Finance Ministry echoed a November statement to the same effect, and it came amid mounting international criticism of Germany’s handling of a separate art restitution case in Munich. In that case, restitution advocates argue that Germany bungled the handling of the discovery of 1,406 pieces of artwork in the apartment of the son of a Nazi art dealer.
In yesterday’s statement, a spokesman said the German government declined a request by the heir of Max Emden to submit the case to the government’s Limbach Commission.
The commission – the government’s formal arbiter for restitution of artwork seized by the Nazis – is known formally as the German Advisory Commission for the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution, Especially Jewish Property.
“Consistent with the Washington Principles from 1998 the two paintings are not subject to restitution,” the spokesman said, referencing the international agreement that dictated that countries should find “just and fair” solutions to Nazi-looted artwork.
“As the legal situation is clear, there is no need to go to the Limbach Commission,” the spokesman added.
Before the rise of the Nazis, Emden was a business tycoon.
He built a fortune by introducing department stores to Germany, and he eventually owned 16 such stores. He fled Germany in the 1930s for Switzerland, and watched as the Nazis methodically seized each store, said Mel Urbach, a New York-based attorney representing Emden’s grandson, Juan Carlos Emden.
As his wealth evaporated, Emden sold three paintings by Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto below market price in order to have money. The buyer was a front man for Hitler. By the end of World War II, two of the paintings ended up in the custody of the German government.
In 2005, the Emden family began asking the German government for the paintings back. The Emden family in January proposed a settlement in which one painting would be returned and the other kept by Germany, according to documents filed with the government.
The settlement proposal was a last effort to allow Emden’s daughter-in-law, 99, to view one of the paintings.
But the German authorities declined to accept the settlement, and Emden’s daughterin- law died in April. On December 10, Urbach wrote a letter to the government asking to bring the case in front of the Limbach Commission.
Unlike civil court, cases brought to the commission require the consent of both parties.
Speaking from Chile on Tuesday, Emden’s grandson, said Germany’s actions either display “ignorance or maybe the intention of forgetting what really happened.”
“The only word I can find is frustration,” Juan Carlos Emden said. “We are asking for so little.”
The German government has repeatedly stated that since Max Emden was living in Switzerland, and the artwork was sold in Switzerland, the paintings do not represent “loot” or “loss of property because of Nazi-confiscation.”
It justified its decision by pointing to a similar determination by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
But Urbach said Germany’s determination runs contrary to a judgment made by the Limbach Commission.
In the commission’s first determination, in 2005, it awarded artwork back to the heirs of a Jewish couple who had fled Germany for Switzerland.
After her husband died, Clara Fruend sold pieces of the collection to a senior Nazi officer at a Swiss auction house.
In its decision, the commission sided with the Fruend heirs, saying that “the sale of the pieces was necessary solely as a result of financial difficulties that were exclusively due to National Socialist persecution.”
It rejected the government’s claim that there was no connection between the persecution and the sale.
Urbach said he will continue to “aggressively” pursue the case.
“It’s shameful for Germany to maintain a position to continue ownership of paintings that were wrongfully confiscated,” he said.