Whose painting is looted by the Nazis? | Culture

The plot often repeats itself: a Jewish family is forced to sell their assets to flee from the Nazis. In this heritage there are pieces of art that time is in charge of revaluing. The works end up in the hands of dealers and galleries from different parts of the world after long journeys of which not all their stops are known. That is, in which papers are lost or transactions are carried out that always harm them, the first owners. These trips usually end when wealthy collectors buy these jewels (at unbeatable prices) and deposit them in large museums. They do not hide them, on the contrary, they hang on the walls of their art galleries until one day a friend, a relative or someone who knows the owners’ heirs sees the pieces on a walk through an exhibition, notifies them and the history of the painting revives with a judicial complaint. This is what has happened in recent weeks with a painting by Pisarro and another by Mondrian, both plundered by the Nazis and exhibited for decades in important cultural institutions.

The first legal battle to resurface will be on January 18 between the Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza and the United States Supreme Court for the rights of the painting. Rue Saint-Honoré por la tarde. Rain effect, painted in 1897 by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro. The US court has agreed to review a case that the Spanish museum closed in August 2020. Then, a San Francisco court determined that the foundation is the rightful owner of the oil and not the Cassirer-Neubauer family, heirs of Lilly, a wealthy Jewish woman who had to part with him in 1939 for $ 360 in order to leave Germany and avoid being transferred to a concentration camp.

Almost two decades of litigation and two court decisions have passed (the first was in 2018 in a Los Angeles court) in favor of the legality of the purchase that Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza made in 1976 in a New York gallery for $ 300,000 (about 251,000 euros at the current exchange rate). The work passed into the hands of the Spanish State in 1993 within the Thyssen collection and since then it has been exhibited in the museum that houses his collection in Madrid. Before ending up on these walls, the cloth was first confiscated by the Gestapo. Subsequently, its trace was lost and in 1958, although its location was unknown, the German State compensated the Cassirer-Neubauer for the loss of the work with a sum equivalent to its market value at that time.

In 2001, a friend of the Cassirer’s American heirs who was visiting the museum in Madrid saw the oil painting and reported it to the family, who decided to file a lawsuit alleging that the foundation and its previous owners knew the background and the vicissitudes of the work. . It was then that the judicial fight began that will revive in January.

What the Supreme Court of the United States will decide is whether the Spanish law that had been applied until now to determine the ownership of the piece is adequate or not. “The appeal is based on a difference of opinion between the courts of the different federal circuits regarding the rule of determination of the applicable law in cases involving bodies or agencies of a foreign sovereign, in this case, the Kingdom of Spain , in accordance with the Foreign Sovereignty Immunity Law ”, explain the lawyers of the Thyssen Foundation. “We are convinced that his legitimate ownership of the painting will be confirmed,” they advance about a possible verdict.

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The Mondrian case

'Composition with blue', by Piet Mondrian.
‘Composition with blue’, by Piet Mondrian.

In 1927 the avant-garde artist Piet Mondrian presented the art collector Sophie Küppers Composition with blue, a diamond-shaped painting that he had made a year earlier. The dealer deposited it in a museum in Hannover that in 1937 was raided by the Nazis. A short time later, the artist fled to London without knowing what had happened to his creation. The piece was acquired two years later by AE Gallatin, an American collector who was a client of the Buchholz Gallery in New York, a place that in the art world was known to be the repository of works with which Nazism had trafficked.

In 1952, Gallatin bequeathed his entire collection, including this work, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it has been on display for 70 years. Before it was hung in the University of New York. A few weeks ago, the Elizabeth McManus Holtzman Irrevocable Trust, the organization that manages the inheritance of this woman and her husband, the painter Harry Holtzman, who helped Mondrian escape the Nazis until they reached the United States and in 1944 became their legitimate heirs, filed a claim. The heirs allege that the artist died without knowing “the ways to recover his precious painting,” according to a statement collected by the specialized media Art News, in which the family also assures that Holtzman died “without knowing that the work was his property.” The museum defends itself and, once again, as in the case pisarro, denies that the work was acquired illegally or illegitimately and recalls that Holtzman never claimed Composition with blue before he died in 1987.

The Gurlitt antecedent

To try to avoid that these litigation drag on for years and the cases are scattered by different courts of the world where they are susceptible to be tried according to the law of each country, the new German Government, led by Olaf Scholz, announced before taking office that it it would create a central court to judge cases of restitution of art looted by the Nazis. Its objective, as announced by the Coalition Executive, is to eliminate any bureaucratic obstacles and improve the commission that until now receives complaints related to works that are in public collections, such as the Thyssen or the Philadelphia Museum.

'Seated Woman' by Henri Matisse, one of the works confiscated from Cornelius Gurlitt, was returned to its owners in 2015.
‘Seated Woman’ by Henri Matisse, one of the works confiscated from Cornelius Gurlitt, was returned to its owners in 2015.

In this way, the German Government intends to try to solve the hundreds of demands it receives about this type of works and which increased from 2013 with the well-known caso Gurlitt. In 2010, at a customs check on a train, the Bavarian police questioned a man who was traveling with more than 10,000 euros in cash in his pocket. His name was Cornelius Gurlitt and what looked like an investigation into possible tax fraud turned into one of the largest operations against art stolen by the Nazis. 1,258 works from the late 19th and 20th centuries appeared in his apartment. A figure to which was added 200 more works that he kept in another apartment in Salzburg and which came to light in later years. Gurlitt had works by Pissarro, Cézanne, Monet, Otto Dix … and as it turned out, most of it came from looting and looting. Very few have been restored to date.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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