70 years on, the search continues for artwork looted by the Nazis

PBS Newshour 30 April 2016
By Phil Hirschkorn

Read the full transcript below:

Phil Hirschkorn: Simon Goodman has spent 20 years searching for his family’s art collection looted by the Nazis in World War II. Much of the art, taken from Jewish families, was intended to stock Adolf Hitler’s planned museum in Linz, Austria. Goodman’s grandfather, Fritz, was a wealthy Dutch banker who amassed a great art collection with his wife, Louise.

Simon Goodman: He had at least 60 Old Masters, some of them very important. Some Impressionists.

Phil Hirschkorn: After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Hitler’s art agents forced Fritz and Louise to sell, telling them if they did, they would survive.

Simon Goodman: They take everything…all the way down to the China teacups. The trick was that they would be given a train ticket to Italy. And that train ticket ended up taking them to a concentration camp instead.

Phil Hirschkorn: Goodman’s grandparents were killed in the camps. His father, Bernard, living in England, survived the war, got married, and had Simon and his brother, Nick. Bernard traveled frequently to look for the missing art. Some resurfaced in the Netherlands, but it was a fight to get it back.

Simon Goodman: The Dutch government didn’t consider a forced sale to be any kind of extenuating circumstances. They said, “It’s still a sale. You complied. You signed this contract.”

Phil Hirschkorn: After Bernard died in 1994, boxes of his papers arrived at Simon’s doorstep in Los Angeles. As Simon recounts in his new memoir, “The Orpheus Clock,” a reference to a piece that he eventually recovered, his father’s quest became his own.
One of the most important pieces of evidence that was in your father’s papers was an envelope with three black-and-white slides. What did that show?

Simon Goodman: I held them up to the light. They were obviously French Impressionist paintings. So we had them blown up. And then we started asking around. I could clearly see one was by Edgar Degas.

Phil Hirschkorn: This 1980 Degas landscape was a painting his grandparents were forced to sell. Simon first saw a color image of it in a book at UCLA Library in 1995.

Simon Goodman: So really, my life changes at that point.

Phil Hirschkorn: The collector who had purchased the Degas had donated it to the Art Institute of Chicago. Simon and his brother sued and in 1998 were named the rightful owners. They agreed to split the value of the painting with the collector, and the museum bought out their half. The successful claim was the first case of its kind in the U.S., and many more have followed for them and for other families, in other museums and in other countries.

Lucian Simmons: It’s like a forensic job. You’re trying to piece together the ownership history of a painting.

Phil Hirschkorn: Lucian Simmons’ job is to check artworks offered to Sotheby’s Auction House and weed out any with a tainted past by checking documents, physically examining the art and checking databases of missing works.

Lucian Simmons: That process is designed to ascertain whether or not the painting could have been in, if you like, the wrong place at the wrong time. Could have been in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945 and could have been stolen. Once in a blue moon we find a picture which was with a bad person, somebody who’s a red flag.

Phil Hirschkorn: So, I guess the easy ones to reject are the ones that have been reported stolen in the Art Loss Register and similar databases?

Lucian Simmons: We wouldn’t reject them. What we do is to say to our consigner, our client, “Look, we have a problem here. Let’s now sit down together and try and work out if we can bring about a resolution.”

Phil Hirschkorn: I imagine the reaction is, “You’ve got to be kidding me. I paid good money for this. I did nothing wrong. I have a legal bill of sale.”

Lucian Simmons: It’s a typical reaction. Or people say, “I never knew. I inherited this from my grandmother.”

It’s a shock. But my job is to actually talk people off the ledge, and then try and make it in from a bad story to a good story.

Phil Hirschkorn: Simmons and Sotheby’s were able to turn a bad story into a good story by selling this Paris street scene by French impressionist Camille Pissarro. The painting had belonged to a German-Jewish businessman killed in the Holocaust. When the painting resurfaced in the Israel Museum 60 years later, the family made a claim. The museum returned it to the family, who took it to Sotheby’s, who sold it for $31,000,000 in 2014. Museums are often caught in the middle.

Eric Lee: Before we buy a work of art, we do as much research as we can.

Phil Hirschkorn: Eric Lee is director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. After a flurry of looted art claims, 15 years ago American museums adopted guidelines telling them how to handle Nazi-looted art.

Eric Lee: It’s an ongoing process, but there are always gaps. And rarely do we have a history of complete ownership of a work of art from the time it was created until today.

Phil Hirschkorn: The Kimbell decided to review everything and be transparent, posting online the ownership histories, calling the Provenance. Sometimes this process meant reckoning with uncomfortable truths. This canvass by 19th century British painter Joseph Turner hung in the museum for 40 years. In 2006, a family came forward with proof the painting was looted from them. The Kimbell returned it and then repurchased at auction for $6,000,000. A big price for doing the right thing, and then it happened again.

Eric Lee: It’s a sculpture of extremely high quality of a very beautiful woman from the Italian Renaissance.

Phil Hirschkorn: In 2011, Lee was shown this photograph of the sculpture in the hands of a special allied army unit dedicated to post-war art recovery, “The Monuments Men,” who found it stashed with Nazi loot in an Austrian salt mine.

Eric Lee: I was completely floored by this. We had no idea that the sculpture had been taken by the Nazis.

Phil Hirschkorn: Because the sculpture was returned after the war to the rightful owners before being resold, the Kimbell got to keep it. The latest looted art case to be settled in the U.S. involved the University of Oklahoma.

David Boren: Hit me right between the eyes the minute I learned of this.

Phil Hirschkorn: What university president David Boren learned about in 2012 was that there was a problem with a gift of 30 paintings bequeathed to the school by a prominent Oklahoma family 12 years earlier. Among them was this Pissarro painting of a shepherdess. After the war, it travelled from France to Switzerland, the Netherlands and New York, where a gallery sold it to the Oklahoma family in 1956. Just four year ago, the heir of a Jewish couple whose collection was looted during the Nazi occupation of France, said the Pissarro was hers. Then she sued the university in federal court to get it back.

David Boren: So we were confronted with a very difficult situation. A very generous donor who in good faith gave us this art, and another family that clearly had this art stolen from them by the Nazis.

Phil Hirschkorn: Last month, the university settled the case, ceding title, or ownership, to the French claimant and agreeing to share its public display: a few years in Paris, then a few years in Oklahoma and back again.

David Boren: It’s an ethical and moral issue, not just a legal issue. We weren’t about to try to compromise our ethics in order to continue to build collections.

Phil Hirschkorn: Claudia Shaum’s family never had a big collection, but her grandparents bought some paintings in the 1920s and 30s. Decades later, her parents inherited them, including this small picture of “a man and a wife weighing gold” by a 17th century Dutch artist. It hung in the Manhattan apartment where Shaum grew up.

Claudia Shaum: I remember exactly where it was. Passed by it every day.

Phil Hirschkorn: When her father died in 2011, Shaum and her siblings tried to sell it along with other paintings he owned. Sotheby’s auctioned five of them, but declined to sell the Dutch painting, which had been appraised at $400,000. The red flag? A Nazi officer named “Menton” once possessed it. Shaum was unable to prove it was never stolen.

Claudia Shaum: Sotheby’s just said, “Full stop, out, we’re not touching it.” And their recommendation, at the time, was “Just have a family member hang it on their wall, because that’s just all that’s ever going to happen to this painting.”

Phil Hirschkorn: It’s tainted?

Claudia Shaum: Yeah. Exactly.

Phil Hirschkorn: In the past year, Shaum gave up. Today, it hangs in her brother’s home. Ironically, the notoriety of being looted can add value to an art work.

Lucian Simmons: It’s a rare picture, and it’s in beautiful condition.

Phil Hirschkorn: Since Lucian Simmons started his job at Sotheby’s 21 years ago, the auction house has cleared and sold $800,000,000 of once-looted art.

Lucian Simmons: They used to say, “Don’t mention this difficult history of a painting. People won’t want to know that this belonged maybe to a Nazi, or stolen from a Jewish family.” But now people have gone the other way in that they actually want to hear the story. They want to hear the background of the painting.

Phil Hirschkorn: Next month, Sotheby’s will auction this painting from 1660 by the Dutch artist Gabriel Metsu. It belonged to the Rothschild family in Vienna, until the Nazis took it in 1938 and hung it in Hitler’s residence in Munich. The Monuments Men found it after the war with a Nazi inventory number on the back.

Lucian Simmons: The accounts clerks in the museum marked this AR, this is Alfonse von Rothschild, 8-5-7.

Phil Hirschkorn: A story that is part of the marketing of a painting estimated to be worth six to eight million dollars.

Lucian Simmons: The provenance is certainly going to add to its rarity, add to its appeal.

Phil Hirschkorn: Hitler’s museum never got built, but tens of thousands art works stolen in his name are unaccounted for. Simon Goodman is still searching. He currently has a claim against the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam for these hand-painted Renaissance-era dishes. Only recently, did Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum return his family’s 500-year-old silver and gold pitcher and these 17th century Chinese vases.

Are you doing this for the money?

Simon Goodman: The money is important, because it’s our–it’s my delayed inheritance. It’s my family’s heritage. These are our belongings.

But my primary motivation is, as long as these things are out there that belong to my family, and it’s my duty to get them back. Because otherwise, in a way, Hitler won.
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