Columbia artist replicates painting from Nazi art trove in empathetic gesture for blind inheritor

The State 21 March 2014
By Rachel Haynie

Blind Manhattan attorney David Toren receives Columbia artist Christian Thee’s replica of the Max Liebermann painting looted from his family’s collection by the Gestapo in 1939. Thee created the painting in relief so Toren can feel it. PHOTO BY RACHEL HAYNIE/SPECIAL TO THE STATE

NEW YORK — Among more than 1,400 works discovered months ago in what is being called a Nazi art trove is “Two Riders on the Beach” by German impressionist Max Liebermann.

Eighty-Eight-year old David Toren last saw the painting as a boy of 13, on the wall of his great-uncle’s villa.

The retired Manhattan attorney lost his sight six years ago. But on Thursday, thanks to the work of Midlands artist Christian Thee, Toren was able to “see” his family’s painting again.

Thee, known for realistic murals and stage designs, created a bas relief version of “Two Riders” so that Toren could feel the outlines of the piece and remember what it looked like.

Toren received Thee’s painting as a welcome distraction from his lawsuit against Germany and Bavaria to regain possession of the stolen art. He said he is taking the gift as a harbinger of hope – that the original painting will soon join Thee’s painting on his Upper Eastside apartment wall.

Thee set out to replicate the Lieberman painting, confiscated from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, after reading a New York newspaper’s coverage of Toren and the Liebermann painting’s provenance. The Columbia artist, who lived and painted in New York for several decades, got to the end of the article, which noted: ‘Unfortunately, even if Mr. Toren gets his painting back, he will not be able to see it. He lost his sight six years ago to shingles.”

“This gentleman might have been my neighbor,” Thee said he realized The thought surfaced: “What if Mr. Toren could feel his painting?”

Thee quickly went online to get a better look at “Three Riders on the Beach.” After two failed tries, he created a painting by building up art material to give it a tactile dimension.

The replica was ready for delivery, but then winter weather made travel to New York prohibitive. Other delays and commitments made it impossible for Thee to deliver the piece in person, so it was shipped this week.

“Germany still has him waiting for the original Liebermann. I could get my painting to him in two days,” said Thee.

On Thursday, Toren got in touch – literally – with a poignant reminder of his family’s history.

Before tearing away the bubble wrap and brown paper in which the painting was shipped, Toren recalled the day the Nazis came to the German villa and took his father away. In time, both of Toren’s parents died in the Holocaust. He still recalls the Max Liebermann painting hanging on the wall in the villa’s garden room.

Seventy-five years later and unable to see the painting, Toren has said in interviews that getting the art back would be justice.

As his trembling fingertips traced the human and equestrian figures Thee had layered on for the German native to touch, Toren said, “I am deeply moved.”


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