Stolen treasure

Haaretz, 12 August 2004
David Rapp

Historians believe that about one-fifth of the art works in Europe were looted by the Nazis; many of them can be found today in major museums and private collections. Now, the original owners and their heirs are beginning to reclaim their property.

In 1943, a young woman stood on the railway platform in Florence. She waited two whole days for her parents, the Gutmanns, from the Netherlands, second-generation Christian converts. The couple knew that under the Nazi occupation their lives were in danger and planned to leave their homeland and join their daughter, Lili, who had moved to Italy in 1938.

They had the necessary papers for leaving the Netherlands, but then two SS men appeared at their door. The Gutmanns were put on a train that took them to an interrogation at the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia. They were questioned about their art collection, among other things. A short time later, the two were murdered. Their art collection was confiscated. Bernard, Lili's brother, escaped from Holland and survived.

About two years ago, Lili Gutmann returned to her country of birth, accompanied by Simon and Nick Goodman, the sons of Bernard, who died in 1994. Gutmann, a woman in her eighties, went with them to a large warehouse in Rijswijk, not far from The Hague. In the warehouse, 233 items awaited her: paintings, embroidered rugs and silver utensils - all belonging to her parents. That was only a small part of the vast amount of property looted by the Nazis. It had been transferred to the Dutch government at the end of World War II, with a view to returning it to its owners. But in Holland, as in most European countries, almost nothing was done for decades.

Historians believe that during the 12 years of the German Reich, about one-fifth of the art works in Europe were looted by the Nazis. Even now, almost 60 years after the end of World War II, many of these works are collecting dust in warehouses, gracing private collections, or being exhibited in respectable museums the world over.

A combination of inactivity, neglect and lack of information, as well as many transactions carried out in good faith, gave rise to a situation where thousands of masterworks now have at least two owners: Those who owned them until the Nazi era, and those who bought or received them after the end of World War II. Both are legal owners, until proved otherwise.

During the past decade - as a result of the fall of Communism, the opening of archives in the West and increasing public pressure - the owners, today very elderly people, or their heirs, are beginning to receive information about the vestiges of their cultural heritage, and are starting to take action. Some are turning to the courts, while others are forming pressure groups that are working to change the law in various countries so that they can claim what is rightfully theirs.

Israel is focusing on studying the material (which is already old) and on preaching to the Europeans. There is nobody to lead the battle to return the works to their owners. Even where disclosing information is concerned - for example, on works that were transferred to museums in Israel from the assets of those who disappeared after the war - little has been done.

Lili Gutmann identified every item in the warehouse in Rijswijk, but the most important work in the Gutmanns' collection - a pastel drawing by Edgar Degas, "Landscape with Smokestacks" - was not there.

The picture never reached the Dutch government - the Gutmanns sent it to friends in France after the German occupation of Holland in 1940, and then it disappeared. Lili's brother Bernard dedicated his entire life to a search for this work, and died without finding it. His sons, who live in Los Angeles, started to search for the drawing after their father's death. In 1996 they found a photo of it in a catalogue, with the name of the buyer next to it: Daniel Searle, a Chicago collector, had bought it in 1987 from a gallery in the United States for about $850,000. Searle, who bought the painting legally, refused to consider the claim that it was stolen property. The brothers decided to take legal action, and Anne Webber, who directs documentary films, asked to document their steps.

Webber accompanied Lili Gutmann to her childhood home in the town of Heemstede, Holland. She interviewed Gutmann's nephews as well as Searle, and conducted research that became increasingly thorough over a two-year period. In an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph about a year and a half ago, Webber estimated that Searle and the Gutmann brothers had spent about $1 million on legal proceedings in the United States.

When she completed the film in 1998, and before it was broadcast on Britain's Channel 4, Webber sent a copy to each of the parties, and Searle called her. He had seen the film, was very moved, and decided that he had to meet with the brothers. Perhaps his decision was preceded by a conversation with his lawyer, who may have encouraged him to reach a compromise. Whatever the case, the parties met and reached a financial agreement and a compromise, according to which the names of the original owners would be written alongside the painting, which is on display in the Chicago Institute of Art.

Webber had found her calling. In 1999, along with several colleagues, she established the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (ECLA), a nonprofit organization involved in returning works of art looted by the Nazis to their owners. Only six people work in the organization's London offices, but they have nevertheless succeeded thus far in handling hundreds of complicated requests from all over the world, including quite a number from Israel. Today the ECLA is the most important international organization in the field.

In Israel there is very little involvement in the struggle to help Holocaust survivors locate works of art that belonged to their families, or to lead a public battle on the issue. The Claims Conference in Israel says that at the moment they are not active in this area. Yoram Dori, spokesman for the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), the umbrella group for 11 international organizations that are working on the issue (including the Claims Conference), says that "the emphasis in WJRO activity for returning works of art is not to receive compensation, but to carry out historical justice." Dori says that WJRO has been busy for five years mainly with gathering information. "What is really important to us is that the real owners of the works be acknowledged," he says. "The act of removing paintings from museums such as the Louvre, for instance, is not a simple thing."

The Czechs give up the Feldmann Collection

As opposed to WJRO, ECLA's activity has had tangible results. Webber, who serves as co-chair of the organization alongside David Lewis, says that to date ECLA has succeeded in returning about 400 works of art to their owners, some of them Israeli. "We conduct negotiations with museums and collectors," she said this week in a phone interview, "and occasionally with official representatives of the countries themselves, as in the case of the prolonged discussions with Holland on behalf of the Gutmanns. So far we haven't been forced to turn to the courts."

In March 2004, ECLA managed to reach an agreement for the return of a collection of drawings to the Israeli heirs of attorney Arthur Feldmann of Czechoslovakia, who was an enthusiastic art collector. Although in 1934 he sold part of his collection, including drawings by artists such as Rembrandt, Titian and Rubens, he immediately began to expand it once again. When it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1939, the collection included over 700 drawings. Feldmann and his wife perished in the Holocaust, but their two sons survived, and their children live in Israel.

In 1960 they discovered that part of their grandfather's collection of drawings was on exhibit in the Moravian Gallery in the city of Brno in Czechoslovakia. In the mid-1990s, when it became possible, their representative turned to the courts in the Czech Republic, demanding that the works be returned to them. The lawsuit was rejected, on the pretext that the expiration date for submitting such claims was 1948. A new law passed in the Czech Republic in 2000 enabled Feldmann's heirs to take action once again. This time they didn't turn to the courts, but to ECLA, which conducted negotiations with the management of the gallery in Brno and with representatives of the Czech government for two years. In March 2004, the representatives of the parties published a notice to the effect that 150 drawings now in the gallery in Brno would be returned to Feldmanns' heirs in Israel.

The gallery directors in Brno said at the time that they were offering to buy the five most important works in the collection for $160,000. Anne Webber informed them on behalf of the family, which preferred not to reveal its identity, that it would consider the proposal. The only thing that clouded the agreement was the announcement that now the Czech export laws would have to be examined, in order to decide how it will be possible to take the many works out of the country.

Many of those who claim ownership of works of art that were taken from them or from their relatives emphasize that they are not motivated by money. But even if questions of justice and ethics are the main thing, the issue does involve a great deal of money. Among the hundreds of thousands of works of art looted by the Nazis, a small number were confiscated and were not allowed to be displayed, after being defined as "degenerate art."

Most of the looted works were transferred to the private collections of Hitler and senior officials of the Third Reich, or were designated for the realization of the Fuehrer's great dream - the establishment of a museum-city in Linz, Austria, which would put the museums of Vienna and other world museums in the shade. And what better way to compete with the great art collections than to confiscate them and integrate them into the new collection?

Hitler was a frustrated artist, and those who didn't want him in the Academy of Art in Vienna got him as a curator, in the context of the Anschluss of 1938. At the time, Hitler initiated a program called the Linz Special Mission, which was classified "top secret." The mission - to turn his sleepy childhood city into the crown jewel of the Reich. For that purpose, the German military forces included officials who were instructed to bring important works of art with them. These works were concentrated in several sites in Austria and Germany.

When the Allied attacks on Germany increased, the Nazis transferred the stolen property to castles of historical importance, on the assumption that they wouldn't be bombed, and to protected salt mines. The Fuehrer had promised a thousand-year Reich, and the works of art were supposed to wait patiently for the establishment of the new museum-city. Allied soldiers found them in these collection centers. The Americans also included among their forces experts who were instructed to look for stolen works of art that had been hidden in the "liberated" areas. This took several years: The works of art were transferred to a special central authority established for the purpose, which dealt with returning the works to the countries from which they had been looted. Each country, for its part, promised to do everything possible in order to return them to their owners. Most did very little.

On the issue of works of art looted by the Nazis, there are two different tracks: one relates to works that were transferred to various countries immediately at the end of the war. Another consists of works that over the years wound up in private collections or museums, and which come from collections assembled by the Nazis from stolen works. These are complicated cases, because it is difficult to find out how the work changed hands over the years, and because in many cases the buyers acted in good faith. Most of the legal proceedings carried out in recent years throughout the world deal precisely with such situations.

$10 million for one of grandmother's paintings

In 2002, a Swiss businessman who was interested in buying a work by Picasso, "Femme en Blanc" ("Woman in White)," turned to the Art Loss Register, a commercial body that investigates the legal background of art transactions, and ascertains that the works have changed hands legally. The Register discovered that the painting by Picasso, which was owned at the time by the Alsdorf family of Chicago (generous patrons of the arts) belonged in the 1930s to Carlota Landsberg of Berlin.

When Landsberg fled from Germany with her only daughter, Edith, in 1938, she handed over the painting to a Jewish art dealer for safekeeping. A short time later, the dealer fled to Paris with the painting. In 1939 he left Europe for the United States, but left the painting behind. The Picasso work was eventually confiscated by the Nazis. Carlota Landsberg and her daughter also went to live in the United States.

After the war, Landsberg began to search for the painting, but without success. In 1969 she signed a special agreement with the German government: The government transferred about $27,000 to her as compensation for the loss of the work, and Landsberg promised to return the money if the painting was discovered. Both parties were aware that it was worth many times the sum she had received.

Carlota's daughter had a son, Thomas Bennigson, whose parents died when he was young. The years passed, and in 1994 Landsberg died as well, without knowing that 19 years earlier, in 1975, James Alsdorf had bought "Woman in White" for $375,000, at the Steven Hahn Gallery in New York. Bennigson was already a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, when in 2002 they called him from the Art Loss Register and told him that the painting that had belonged to his grandmother had been offered for sale at a Los Angeles gallery for $10 million. Bennigson turned to attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, who filed a suit in his name in the California courts, demanding that the painting be returned to Bennigson. At present the parties are preparing for a legal battle over "Woman in White," after months of discussions in various legal instances that focused on the question of the authority of the California court to rule on the issue.

Schoenberg, a young lawyer, has been conducting for several years a legal battle for the return of works of art to their owners; his fight is arousing a great deal of interest in many countries. Schoenberg represents Maria Altmann, a resident of Los Angeles, who is demanding that the Gallery Belvedere in Vienna return six works by Gustav Klimt that belonged to her family. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting decision, concluded that the American legal system has the authority to rule on the issue.

Government apathy

Attorney Edward Fagan, who became known for the class action suits he conducted against the Swiss banks in 1998 on the issue of "Nazi gold," stood outside the German Finance Ministry in Berlin last June, and announced that he plans to file a suit for $18 billion against the German government. Fagan, representing the Association of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artworks and Masterpieces (AHVRAM), claims that the government did not make a proper effort to return 2,000 works of art that remained in its hands to their owners, from the property transferred to it after World War II. In response, the German Finance Ministry published an announcement stating that over one million works of art have been returned to their owners or to heirs since the end of the war. The ministry estimated the value of the works whose owners have not yet been located at about 60 million euros.

A few weeks ago, Fagan filed a lawsuit in a New York court against Sotheby's, claiming that since the 1970s the large auction house dealt in works of stolen art, including paintings by artists like Van Gogh, Titian and Rembrandt. Sotheby's replied this week that "The claim is patently false and the lawsuit is without merit. Sotheby's has moved to dismiss the complaint. An earlier complaint filed by the same attorney has already been dismissed."

Not all of Fagan's colleagues are impressed by his activities in the field of art, and particularly by his belligerent declarations. Lucille Roussin is a New York lawyer with a doctorate in the history of art and archaeology, who specializes in making arrangements for returning works of art to Holocaust survivors. Roussin says that until last week she couldn't find a copy of Fagan's suit against the German government. "In any case, a class action in this area is a rather strange idea," she says. "This is not a matter of identical damage done to many people." She explained that each work of art has changed hands many times, that each has a different value, and the method of returning it to its owner is very complicated.

Roussin says that lawsuits for returning works of art were filed in the United States many years ago, but in recent years there has been a great awakening. "One of the reasons is the opening of archives, in Germany and all over the world," she says. "In addition, after many years in which the main emphasis was on emotional rehabilitation and dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust, recently more survivors have become aware of the cultural heritage that was stolen from them."

In the United States and in Israel there have been calls for European soul-searching regarding stolen works of art that hang in museums on the Continent. Roussin dares to say what many of her colleagues are afraid to express - that the situation in the United States and in Israel needs to be improved too. "During my last visit to the Israel Museum I saw several pictures next to which it says that the work was contributed by the IRSO. That was an organization - established on the basis of the special authority set up by the Americans after the war, for returning works of art - which received property that was known to have belonged to Jews, in order to distribute it among organizations and museums, as it saw fit," she says. "But who among the visitors knows that these initials mean that the works were transferred to Israel from Europe in the 1950s, because their owners could not be found? Some of the works may belong to someone, and the least that should be done is to publish the information, and make sure people know that those works of art come from the property of European Jews."

Special labels

In 1951, 28 crates arrived in Israel. The crates contained a real treasure: dozens of works of art that had been collected by the Allied forces at the end of the war, and transferred a short time later to the JRSO (Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which in many documents was also referred to as the IRSO). Mordechai Narkiss, then the director of the Bezalel art school and museum, reviewed the works. With the opening of the Israel Museum in the mid-1960s, the works were transferred to the museum collection.

In the 1950s the works continued to arrive from Europe, little by little. Stephanie Rahum, the senior curator of modern art at the Israel Museum, says that some of the important works in the collection came to the museum in that way, including the 1915 painting "The City," by Egon Schiele, as well as works by Alfred Sisley and Max Lieberman. Rahum says that when a work that was in those deliveries is displayed, the plaque alongside it includes the letters IRSO. "These works are a memorial to people who perished in the Holocaust," she says.

"When we guide groups, we are sure to mention the significance of the letters IRSO, and to explain that these are works that arrived at the Israel Museum when their owners could not be located, and that if they are found they will receive their property back. We have an exact listing of these works."

Nehama Guralnik, curator of international art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, points out a work by German expressionist Erich Heckel, which may have originated in the IRSO deliveries. When she tried to learn about the history of the work, Guralnik discovered that it was brought to Israel in September 1953, transferred to the Tel Aviv Museum about six years later, and added to the collection. "On the back of the picture I found a label saying that the work originally belonged to the Mannheim Museum in Germany," says Guralnik. "The rest of its history isn't sufficiently clear." Guralnik doesn't know of other works in the museum collection that may have come from the IRSO. And in any case, in the Tel Aviv Museum, such works don't receive any special labels.

The concentrated effort made by the Allies at the end of the war to return works of art to the countries from which they had been stolen resolved many injustices when it came to museums and some owners of important collections. But the number of works that belonged to others was also huge, and the governments of many European countries did nothing with them. Moreover, the right of citizens to claim their property was drastically curtailed in some countries. In Germany, it was first decided that lawsuits could be filed only until 1948, a very short time for those whose world had fallen apart, and who were required to produce documents or give precise testimony regarding works they hadn't seen for many years.

Research studies published in the 1990s breathed new life into efforts to locate lost works of art. The book "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War," by Lynn Nichols, published in 1994, documented the entry into the international art market of works confiscated by the Nazis. It made waves. In 1995, the Austrian government announced that it would transfer the Mauerbach collection, which was named after the monastery where the Nazis stockpiled a large group of looted works, to the country's Jewish community. It was agreed that the property would be sold at public auction, and the money be distributed among survivors, the local community and Jewish organizations. At the auction, which took place in 1996, about 1,000 items were sold, for about $10 million.

Before the auction, Sophie Lillie, an art historian, was invited to investigate how the various works had reached the Mauerbach collection. She entered the Federal Monuments Office in the heart of Vienna, and emerged six years later, with a thick book called "Was Einmal War" (What Once Was), in which she documented almost 150 collections of Austrian Jews, with a precise listing of the works they contained.

One of the collections she investigated was that of Jenny Steiner, who managed to escape from Austria to the United States, and left behind some paintings by Klimt. One of them is "Water Snakes II."

"The painting was never recovered since it was seized from Jenny Steiner in 1938," said Lillie this week. "It was put up for sale at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna in 1940, but withdrawn before the auction and acquired directly by Gustav Ucicky (thanks to the intervention of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi administrator, or `major,' of Vienna). Gustav Ucicky was the illegitimate son of Klimt, a collector of his work and a Nazi film producer. His wife inherited the painting upon Gustav's death." Lillie says she hasn't been able to confirm what happened to the painting after that.

Schiele ignited a battle

One of the catalysts for dealing with the Mauerbach collection was a study published in the mid-1990s in Art News, in which it was claimed that the Austrian government was not doing anything to return the works in its possession. But the subject burst into international awareness in 1997, after a U.S. court received a request to delay the return to Austria of two paintings by Egon Schiele, which were on display at an exhibition in New York's Museum of Modern Art. A short time later, the court ruled that one of the works would stay in the United States rather than be returned to the Leopold Museum in Vienna, until clarification of a claim by an American citizen, Lea Bondi, that the painting had been taken from her by the Nazis.

A year later, the U.S. State Department initiated a convention on the subject, with representatives of 44 countries participating, to discuss ways of locating and returning the property. This led to many initiatives in the field. In Europe, the organization headed by Anne Webber was established shortly afterward and initiated preparation of a huge data base, the Central Registry, sponsored by the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University. It contains lists of works that were looted by the Nazis, alongside the names of their past and present owners, and photos of the works. Searches can be conducted according to various parameters.

"The tragedy in this matter is lack of information," says Webber. "Who can conduct a serious search on his own in hundreds of museum warehouses?" The data base compiled by the organization contains information about the legal situation in each of the countries in which the issue is likely to arise. It documents about 20,000 works. The site tries to present as many photos of the works as possible, and the information appears in English alongside other languages.

Webber has harsh criticism of some European countries. "In Germany, for example, fewer than 20 museums (out of about 6,000) have bothered to publish information about suspicious works of art in their collections," she says.

Germany and Russia have in fact set up Internet sites in recent years, containing information about stolen works of art, but Webber says that "the Germans initiated the site in order to list works of art that were looted from Germany by the Russians, and only afterward did they begin to list the works that were looted by the Nazis. As far as the Russian site is concerned, it is meant only for Russian speakers, so that it misses the goal of addressing as many people as possible."

In Britain, says Webber, they have taken several positive steps. For example, a few months ago the British Museum published an unusually frank notice, to the effect that it is possible that many works in its collections originate in the trade in looted art.

France experienced an earthquake in 1997, with the publication of a book by journalist Hector Feliciano, "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art," which investigates how French art collections made their way to Nazi Germany and back to the art world in dubious ways.

Webber says that over 60,000 works were returned to France at the end of World War II. About 45,000 of them were returned to their owners, about 13,000 were sold, and of the remaining 2,000 works, whose owners could not be found, some were chosen by French museums for "temporary" display. These works are displayed on a special Web site set up by the French government.

There have been contacts going on for several years regarding loaning some of these works to the Israel Museum. The French embassy in Israel insists that such a loan will not be implemented until Israel passes a law guaranteeing immunity from lawsuits by Israelis regarding ownership of the loaned works. The reason given is that such a claim may crop up in France as well in the future, and then Israel will be required to return the works to France, in order to clarify the matter.

The director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, doesn't believe that the differences of opinion are so great. "The demand for immunity from lawsuits is routine in connection with loans of works of art among museums," he says, "and there is no reason why this case should be different. We are discussing with the French the possibility that they will loan us, for the long term or for temporary exhibits, works from that same large body of work that has remained in the hands of the French Museums Authority, and we consider this very important."

Martin Weil, former director of the Israel Museum, and today director of the Bracha Foundation, which supports the arts, can say what they are afraid even to imply in the French embassy and the present museum administration: "The level of these works is not uniform, and not all of them are worthy of being displayed in the museum," says Weil. "And even were they to pass this hurdle of quality, I'm not certain that as a country, Israel has to demand that they be displayed here. If the paintings were stolen from the collection of a French Jew, for example, the fact that they wound up at an exhibit in a public museum like the Louvre, is not a bad solution."

In the international art market, the complications involved in selling a work of art that doesn't have a "clean" pedigree has motivated the large auction houses to carry out investigations regarding every item that reaches them. The main office of Sotheby's in London has established a special department for that purpose, headed by attorney Lucien Simons. In recent years, the information gathered there has also served to locate possible heirs to the works. Of course this is done for economic reasons as well: In 1999, for example, Sotheby's located the owner of a Claude Monet painting, "Monceau Park," 1878 (one of three paintings he painted on that subject) and helped the owner and the person who had the painting to reach an agreement. Thus Sotheby's was able to sell the work in the end to a third party for about 3.5 million pounds sterling, to the satisfaction of both sides.

The Pissarro in the Israel Museum

The Israel Museum was directly involved in recent years in a claim for the return of a work of art that was looted by the Nazis. The work was found in the museum's collection in Jerusalem. In the Impressionist art wing, the painting "Montmartre Boulevard: Spring" (1897) by Camille Pissarro is on display, and next to it is a text that explains its history over the past century, including an embarrassing episode.

The work was purchased in 1960 by John and Frances Loeb of New York. In 1997, after John's death, it was donated to the Israel Museum. Two years later the museum received a letter from a woman named Gerta Silberberg, widow of the son of a Jewish industrialist and art collector from Breslau, Germany, who claimed that the painting belonged to her. The painting had been confiscated from her husband's father in 1935, and for years there was no trace of it. In the end it showed up at a public auction, and that was how it came into the hands of the Loebs. The parties finally reached an amicable compromise, which is worded in marvelously diplomatic language: Silberberg did receive ownership of the work, but left it "on loan for 10 years" in the Israel Museum. The director of the museum, James Snyder, is justly proud of this arrangement.

This example illustrates how vital it is to victims of the looting to be acknowledged. But it also raises another delicate issue, which the heads of the museums in Israel are apparently afraid to discuss. To date, no comprehensive study has been carried out in Israel regarding the provenance of the works of art that comprise the collections in local museums, and even when information exists, as in the Israel Museum, it is not sufficiently accessible to the public.

Perhaps such a study should be carried out, at the initiative of the Israel Museums Association, for example, before the day on which a real lawsuit reaches one of these respectable institutions, and not only a letter from an insulted heiress. Anne Webber says that about 700 works of art were brought to Israel in the context of IRSO, "not only paintings, but tallit ornaments, for example. The Nazis tore them off the tallit, because they considered them to have artistic value. Such works were also sent to Israel in the 1950s, and when they are displayed in the Israel Museum, the letters IRSO appear alongside them."

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