A commission created by the Brazilian Justice Ministry in 1997 is using leads supplied by the World Jewish Congress to search for more than 100 such works sold in the country between the 1940s and 1970s.
In addition, two artworks — oil paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso – – have been placed under the protection of the Special Commission to Examine the Nazi Legacy in Brazil.
According to Rabbi Henry Sobel, a member of the commission, the oils were in the possession of two Sao Paulo families. They were sold for $2.2 million in 1939 and are worth considerably more today.
The sale was supposedly made through art dealer Thadeus Grauer, who represented the Switzerland-based Fischer Gallery in Sao Paulo. Many of the artworks looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners found their way to Switzerland during and after the war.
The families who owned the two oils did not know the works had been stolen and they have been cooperating with the commission, Sobel said.
He added that he has lists of suspect works that are housed in the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro and the Museum of Art of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre.
He named two paintings in the Porto Alegre museum, originally bought by families in the region in the 1950s, and later donated to the institution. One is “The Small Black Lake” by Rose Bonneur, and the other is a small untitled landscape by Bruxton Knight.
The sale of looted artworks had the purpose of filling the coffers of Kamaradenwerk, an arm of the Odessa network, which was dedicated to helping Nazis hiding in Latin America after the war, Sobel said.
Odessa was deactivated in 1954, but Kamaradenwerk continued operating until 1968, according to the commission.
Controversy has surrounded the commission’s search, as local art dealers have questioned the ability of the commission to document whether any of the art had, in fact, originally been stolen by the Nazis.
Museum officials, meanwhile, are defending themselves from charges that they are housing looted art.
“The works in the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo have their origin extremely well documented, and the major part of the collection was attained before the war. Therefore, I don’t think there is any problem,” the president of the museum, Julio Neves, told a local newspaper.
“At any rate, until now no one questioned anything, and I don’t know anything.”
The director of the Museum of Art of Rio Grand do Sul, Paulo Amaral, told the newspaper, “I have the utmost sympathy for the work of the commission, but it is very much in the air, without papers, without proof.”
According to him, the works in the museum by Bonneur and Knight that Sobel mentioned are having their purchase documents evaluated.
But he does not believe there will be any conclusive evidence that can relate them to the Fischer Gallery.
The commission has come under criticism for the secrecy surrounding its searches, but Sobel said it protects both the investigations and the individuals and institutions involved.
“The truth is that we have indications, but we don’t have proof, and it is necessary to take precautions so that this does not become sensationalist,” he said.