Jewish Museum Aids in Nazi-Looted Art's Return

Courthouse News Service 5 May 2015
By Adam Klasfeld

MANHATTAN (CN) - Two portraits stood side-by-side Tuesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for an art-repatriation ceremony overlooking the Statue of Liberty.

     On an easel closest to the lectern, a 17th century, late Italian Renaissance painting titled "Portrait of a Man" depicts a figure gazing upon the audience. It previously hung upon the walls of the Louvre in Paris.

     Scholars believe that the unknown artist behind this portrayal of a Venetian ambassador affected the style of Giovanni Battista Moroni, whose realistic oil portrayals of clergy and nobility ranked him among the great portraitists of his day.

     Next to this painting, organizers displayed a monochrome photograph of its late owner, Dr. August Liebmann Mayer, his head tilted at the same angle as the Italian nobleman.

     Mayer had been a renowned art historian who resigned from his positions at the Bavarian State Paintings Collection and the University of Munich in the early 1930s as a wave of anti-Semitism washed over his native Germany.

     "On March 24, 1933, Dr. Mayer was arrested; his Munich home was searched; and his property was seized," the office of New York's financial watchdog Benjamin Lawky recounts. "During his detention, which lasted several months, Mayer was harassed and repeatedly tortured."

     Attempting to escape the Nazis' rise to power, Mayer fled to France but found himself targeted by Adolf Hitler's task force dedicated to the appropriation of cultural property: Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg.

     His "voluminous art library" wound up in the hands of Hermann Goering, Lawsky said
     After Nazis murdered Mayer in Auschwitz on March 12, 1944, his daughter would not see the return of his "Portrait of a Man" painting for more than 70 years.

     Now 85, Mayer's daughter and heir did not fly in from California to the New York unveiling for health reasons, her lawyer Mel Urbach said in an interview.

     Though she wishes to remain anonymous, the heir delivered a statement that Urbach's German co-counsel Markus Stoetzel delivered at the Tuesday ceremony.

     "I'm very grateful to live to see this great gesture of reparation and reconciliation," she said. "It's never too late to recognize the fate of those we have lost during the years of Nazi Germany. My late father was a most distinguished art historian and a great lover of art. And I'm so glad that after 70 years, justice has finally been served."

     The museum where this ceremony took place has seen at least six other art-restitution ceremonies, including one marking the return of works by great Viennese painter Egon Schiele, whose sexually charged, Expressionist works were among those the Nazis labeled as "degenerate art."

     The Museum of Jewish Heritage's director David Marwell used the occasion of the latest repatriation to note: "The Holocaust was not only the greatest murder of all time. It was also the greatest theft."

     With this week marking 70th anniversary of the Nazis' defeat in Europe, attorney Urbach called the regime's looted artwork the "last prisoners of war," borrowing a phrase used by a leader of the World Jewish Congress.

     The son of a Holocaust survivor, Urbach pointed out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be marking the occasion with a trip to Dachau concentration camp on Friday, and he urged her to also pay a visit to his claimant clients.

     Those in attendance thanked the French government for its work on its repatriation, and two representatives from France also delivered remarks.

     But art repatriation is not simply a European issue, Urbach added.

     "As we talk today, there are museums and there are other places in the Middle East and in Africa that are being looted at this very second, and people are trading," he thundered. "People are taking items and stuffing it in their pockets. If we stamp it out here with the Nazis, we will stamp it out and they will know, 'We are coming after you.'"

     Lawsky revealed that his family too had been touched by the topic.

     "I have one piece of furniture today that my grandparents were able to take when they fled in 1938," he remarked.

     Though he said this desk has little financial value, Lawsky called it the "most powerful and most important piece of furniture we have."

     Lawsky's office has returned 101 works worth roughly $171 million in assets to victims, and he used the occasion to unveil an online database dedicated to tracing and recovering Nazi-looted art titled "The Art of Recovery."

     Mayer's counsel declined to assign a price to the painting delivered from the Louvre, and chose instead to call attention to victims not yet made whole.

     "I am afraid, ladies and gentlemen, that only a fraction will ever have a Mayer day, and that's our responsibility," Urbach concluded.
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