Art sleuths claim back Hitler's loot
The Observer, 5 May 2002David Rowan
For 50 years Bernard Goodman, a London travel agent, scoured Europe for hundreds of artworks the Nazis had looted from his wealthy family. The vast collection - including works by Degas, Renoir and Botticelli - had belonged to his father Friedrich, a German-Jewish banker whose own father founded the Dresdner Bank.
After Friedrich was beaten to death in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and his wife was gassed at Auschwitz, Bernard and his sister Lili vowed to rebuild the family's stolen collection, now dispersed among unknown owners. This proved a forlorn hope: when he died in 1994, still tormented by his parents' death, Bernard had regained only a handful of minor works.
Then suddenly a few days ago, the Dutch Culture Secretary said he would be returning 233 of the family's artworks that had found their way to his country's museums. He admitted that paintings such as Aelbert Cuyp's Rooster With Hens - its former owner listed as A. Hitler - had belonged to Friedrich. 'This is a satisfying day for our family,' Bernard's son, Nick, said on hearing the news. 'Although nothing can undo the awful events of the war, I now look forward to the day when some of my grandparents' art will hang on my walls.'
But why, after decades of denial and obstruction, did the Dutch relent? Much of the credit must go to half a dozen investigators, art historians and translators who work from an elegant eighteenth-century town house in central London. For the past three years, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe has worked with families of Hitler's victims to locate, identify and recover their stolen artworks. Through detective work, negotiation and moral pressure the investigators have been winning settlements from governments, galleries and collectors from Austria to Argentina.
Now, after years of pressure, they have persuaded the Dutch government to return its stolen Goodman artworks.
Surrounded by thick files carrying the last hopes of the Lustig, Glanville and other families, the commission's chair, Anne Webber, fields calls in her Gloucester Place office from elderly people seeking to retrieve family heirlooms - often a final gift from a murdered parent. 'In almost every case, the personal stories are very disturbing,' said Webber, whose team is working on about 100 cases, ranging from a lone sculpture to a library of 3,500 manuscripts.
'Eighteen months ago, a man in his eighties called from London in a German accent asking if we knew of a painting showing fields of red poppies. Aged 13, he had gone with his father to buy it from the local artist. I asked him how they'd lost it, and it transpired that every member of his family had been killed in the camps. We did a lot of research - we've managed to find three images of this artist's poppy-field paintings.'
In another case, a 'delightful' man in his seventies gave Webber a detailed list of missing paintings. The man, who has lived in England since the Forties, is one of two survivors of an Austrian family of 11. 'He was very upset talking,' she recalled. 'He later returned and said there was only one picture he would really like to see again - a three-quarter-length portrait of a woman in blue. I guessed it was his murdered mother. But a couple of weeks later he rang up saying he'd been having sleepless nights, and that we shouldn't do any further research - he found it just too painful.'
The commission, a non-profit body funded by donations, is regularly obstructed by auction houses refusing to name current owners. Even when it finds a painting, it can take years to reach a settlement. The team is in discussion with Polish, Swiss, German, Austrian, Dutch and American collectors. It has also negotiated with 12 governments to create a vast online registry of looted objects, due to go live next month.
There will be no shortage of entries. Art theft was a serious business for Hitler: even before occupying Holland, he sent an advance team to identify the most desirable collections. Some works were distributed among Nazi functionaries or sold at auction but many were stored: in 1945 the Allies found more than 2,000 repositories in Germany and Austria.
They returned the works to the countries they were taken from and each was charged with setting up a commission for restitution.
But not all works went back to their rightful owners. In France, just 45,000 out of 60,000 were returned; the government invited museums to take a further 2,000 and the rest were sold. For years, governments told claimants that their works must be behind the Iron Curtain. Only in the 1990s did it emerge that this was not the case.
In Holland, the authorities kept 4,000 looted artworks, including Bernard Goodman's family collection, known as the Gutmann collection, after his father's original surname. When war broke out, Bernard was studying at Cambridge, while his parents were living in Holland. No matter that they had sent many of their paintings - including a valuable Degas pastel, Landscape with Smokestacks - to France for safekeeping: when the Nazis arrived, the artworks disappeared.
After the war, Bernard devoted himself to finding them, studying auction catalogues and exhibition notes. 'He never gave up, and was still writing letters to his dying day,' his son Nick, 56, recalled. 'I remember as a little kid, Dad was constantly on the move, going through a passport a year as he chased stuff all over Europe. He'd hear of a painting in Switzerland, and would spend three weeks trying to track it down. Sometimes he'd arrange a settlement, and we'd be flush for a few months - then that money would whittle away.'
To help finance their two sons' education at the French Lycée in South Kensington, Mrs Goodman worked as a beautician at Elizabeth Arden on Bond Street. The couple later divorced, and died within months of each other. Nick, a film production designer now in Los Angeles, recalled: 'Dad had grown up in the lap of luxury, in a beautiful house, was well-educated, went to Cambridge, thought he was going into the family banking business - then suddenly everything was gone. He could never talk about it - all his emotions had been cauterised. If the Holocaust came on television, he would have to leave the room.'
Only after Bernard's death did his sons learn just how much effort he and his sister Lili, now 82, had put into their search for justice. They vowed to continue the fight, and went in pursuit of the lost Degas masterpiece Landscape with Smokestacks.
After months in libraries, in 1996 Nick's brother, Simon, found a photograph of the Degas and the name of its current owner, a retired pharmaceutical executive named Daniel Searle. It had reached the US in 1951 via Switzerland.
Searle had bought the Degas in 1987 for $850,000, and was shocked to receive a letter from the Goodmans saying that it was stolen. Anne Webber followed the ensuing legal dispute in a documentary, Making A Killing; Searle later said that the film persuaded him to settle with the Gutmann heirs. They split the ownership, with the Art Institute of Chicago buying the family's share.
Webber was asked to attend an international conference in Washington on looted art. The European Council for Jewish Communities then asked her to help set up the commission as an independent centre of expertise. It takes on three or four new cases a week, some involving families based in England. It recently arranged the return of a sculpture from Austria, and expects to recover two paintings from Vienna for a British family, after discovering them on sale at an Austrian auction house. The paintings, by Norbert Grund, had been looted from Holland in 1941. Curiously, they turned up together in an auction last March, having been brought there by a German dealer. The law varies by country: in the US victims never lose the right to recover stolen goods, but in the UK if you buy something in good faith you obtain 'good title' after six years.
'Museums generally get "good title" to their works,' Webber explained, 'but they face moral reasons not to keep them.' The pressure is growing on British galleries and museums to return artworks known to be looted: last year the Government agreed to pay £125,000 compensation to three elderly Londoners whose mother sold a work by Jan Griffier the Elder when she fled the Nazis. The painting was later acquired by the Tate Gallery. According to the National Museum Directors' Conference, at least 600 artworks on display in this country - by Picasso, Monet and Cézanne, among others - may have been looted.
As further evidence emerges, the commission's workload grows. 'Last week's settlement would have been a lot harder to achieve without the commission,' said Nick Goodman. 'They've been doing a wonderful job.' Of the 233 items, nine are paintings by artists including Cuyp and Elsner, and the rest 'household items' such as gilt cabinets. The family plans to meet in Holland to decide how to proceed. Another 50 families are seeking the return of looted artworks from Holland.
'It isn't over yet,' Nick Goodman said. 'Our family knows of another Degas still missing, plus a couple of Guardis and a Van de Velde. They might be hanging over someone's fireplace in Argentina or Japan - but we'll keep looking.'