US Tells NYC Auction House to Return Nazi-Looted Art

Courthouse News 22 March 2019
By John Russell

MANHATTAN (CN) – Seventy years after Nazis looted it from Ukraine’s largest art museum as the Soviet tank offensive pushed German occupying forces out of Kiev, a Rococo painting attributed to 18th century painter Pierre Louis Goudreaux surfaced at a New York auction in 2013.

The U.S. government included this image of Goodreaux’s “A Family Portrait” in a federal forfeiture complaint Friday.

On Thursday, federal authorities demanded the return of Goodreaux’s “A Family Portrait” so that the painting once lost in the chaos of World War II can be returned to its rightful owners.

According to the government’s complaint, art collector Vasilii Aleksandrovich Shchavinskii willed “A Family Portrait” to the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of the Arts in Kiev upon his death in 1924.

The Khanenko Museum evacuated some of inventory out of Kiev into Soviet Russia following the Nazi occupation in 1941, but the Goodreaux painting was not listed in the checklists of the evacuated items.

As Soviet tanks pummeled Nazi strongholds in 1943, German troops expeditiously heisted the painting and other valuables from Kiev’s Khanenko Museum, without the paper trail of prior seizures that would have registered the Goodreaux painting in the German ledger of the exported artworks.

The following year, after the Soviet Union had retaken Kiev from Nazi rule, the Soviet Committee for Art began to review pieces stolen from the Khanenko Museum. The committee listed the painting, under the title “An Amorous Couple,” as a missing piece when the review was completed in August 1948.

In a federal forfeiture complaint Friday, the U.S. government included this photo of Goodreaux’s “A Family Portrait” hanging in the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of the Arts before Nazis looted the building during their bloody retreat from Kiev in 1943.

According to the complaint, an FBI investigation established that an unnamed New York art dealer purchased the painting from an auction house in Deerfield, Missouri, in December 1993 and posted it for auction 10 years later.

The 2015 book “Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves” named Doyle Auctions in New York as the site where the painting resurfaced in January 2013.

While the government estimated the painting to be to be worth at least $5,000, the Artnet Price Database indicates that Doyle failed to fetch a buyer when he put the work up for sale with an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000.

The government alleges that the auction house still maintains possession of the work, pending official subpoena and negotiations for return to Ukraine.

Representatives for Doyle, which is not named in the suit, did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced the recovery demand Thursday.

“Our office has a long history of righting wrongs, no matter how long ago a crime was committed,” Berman said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s action is an example of our continued commitment to ensuring that art looted by Nazis more than 75 years ago is returned to its rightful owners.”

The civil forfeiture suit was filed in rem, meaning that the lawsuit is against the asset in question (the painting), and that no criminal charge is taken against the owner of the property.

The case is being handled by the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Transnational Criminal Enterprises Unit, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel L. Raymond in charge of the case.
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