Online database and virtual art gallery aides in recovery efforts

Florida Jewish News 15 May 2015

The movie “Woman in Gold,” based on the book titled “The Lady in Gold” by Anne Marie O’Connor, brought attention to the restitution of paintings and other personal belongings stolen by the Nazi’s from Jewish owners during and before World War II. It took Maria Altmann, heir of five Gustav Klimt paintings, and her Los Angeles-based attorney, Randol Schoenberg, eight years to recover two Klimt paintings of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, as well as three other priceless Klimt pieces.

In 1997, one year before Altmann and Schoenberg began their legal battle with Austria, the Department of Financial Services created the Holocaust Claims Processing Office to help Holocaust victims and their heirs recover lost assets, such as dormant bank accounts, unpaid proceeds of insurance policies and artworks stolen or sold under duress. It is the only government entity in the world that provides such comprehensive services free of charge or commission. To date, HCPO has helped return over $171 million in assets to victims’ families while also recovering 101 works of art.

Just recently, Benjamin M. Lawsky, superintendent of Financial Services, announced at a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City that a 17th Century painting stolen by Nazis was returned to the heir of its rightful owner. The painting, “Portrait of a Man,” which had been held at the Louvre in Paris, was recovered with the assistance of the HCPO and returned with the cooperation of the French government.

At the ceremony, Superintendent Lawsky also announced DFS has launched a new virtual gallery and database of artwork that has been reported to the HCPO as stolen between 1933 and 1945, which will help assist the HCPO’s efforts to recover such artwork and serve as an educational resource.

“While the terrible damage caused by Nazi persecution can never be repaired, we hope that the recovery of this painting will deliver at least some small measure of justice. The new online database our office is launching will serve as an important resource in returning additional art that was lost in the wake of the Holocaust to victims and their heirs. We thank all the parties involved in the restitution of this painting today – in particular, the heir’s attorneys, the French government, and the Commission of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from the Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation (CIVS),” said Lawsky.

“Portrait of a Man,” once belonged to Dr. August Liebmann Mayer, a renowned art historian and prominent curator. Due to ongoing anti-Semitism, Dr. Mayer resigned from his positions at the Bavarian State Paintings Collection and the University of Munich. On March 24, 1933, Dr. Mayer was arrested; his Munich home was searched; and his property was seized. During his detention, which lasted several months, Mayer was harassed and repeatedly tortured. 

In 1935, hoping to escape Nazi persecution, Dr. Mayer fled with his family to France. He settled in Paris and, financially ruined, tried to pursue his career and share his expertise with the art world. However, when the Nazis invaded France, Dr. Mayer was once again a target of Nazi discrimination. His Parisian home was looted by the infamous Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). Among the items seized was his voluminous art library, which in part was confiscated by Hermann Goering. Dr. Mayer was arrested, taken to Drancy, and deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered on March 12, 1944. 

The painting was returned to the daughter of Dr. Mayer as a result of the work of HCPO, which submitted a claim in collaboration with her two attorneys, Markus Stoetzel and Mel Urbach, to CIVS to recover the art work. CIVS, which is charged with resolving claims for artwork in the Musées Nationaux Récupération collection, quickly recognized the rightful claim of Dr. Mayer’s heir based on the provenance of the painting.

Dr. Mayer’s daughter, his lone survivor, through her lawyers Markus Stoetzel from Germany and Mel Urbach from the U.S., thanked DFS’ HCPO and its director, Anna Rubin, for assisting with the return of this painting. “Our client wishes to thank the French Republic and New York State: ‘It is never too late to recognize the fate of those we have lost during the years of Nazi terror. My late father was a most distinguished art historian and a great art lover and I am glad that after more than seventy years, justice is finally being served,’” stated lawyers Stoetzel and Urbach.

According to the lawyers, “The State of New York is at the forefront of bringing closure to Nazi victims’ families in the United States. Our close cooperation with the HCPO demonstrates that claimants from all over the world can achieve justice by forming powerful coalitions.”

The new virtual gallery features historical information about looting and restitution; it provides biographical information on collectors whose artworks were stolen during the Nazi occupation; and highlights artworks recovered with the assistance of the HCPO. The site also contains a database of claims of lost artwork reported to HCPO to serve as a resource in returning those pieces to their rightful owners.

Christine DeSouza contributed to this article.
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