Pissarro Lost and Found

ARTnews, 1 September 2007
Stephan Koldehoff

The search for a looted painting leads to a Liechtenstein trust, a secret Swiss bank safe, and a notorious Nazi art plunderer.

Nobody knew that one of the most notorious art looters of Nazi Germany was still alive, so Bruno Lohse’s death in Munich on March 19 didn’t get much attention. Lohse, 95, had been Hermann Goering’s chief agent for art looting and provided plunder for the Führer Museum that Hitler planned to build in Linz after the war. From 1941 on, Lohse, who had been an art dealer before the war, systemati cally searched through Jewish collections in the occupied territories and presented the loot in special exhibitions for Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels in the Jeu de Paume in Paris. The Nazi leaders kept seized artworks for their own collections or exchanged them for the Old Master paintings they preferred.

After the war Lohse served a short prison term, was released on condition that he never again work as an art dealer, and then returned to his prewar occupation. In June he made headlines when Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler found three precious Impressionist paintings in a safe in the Zurich Cantonal Bank and determined that they were owned by a trust in Liechtenstein that had been controlled solely by Lohse since 1978. In that year, documents show, Lohse established the Schönart Anstalt in Vaduz and gave it more than 14 paintings, which he kept in the Zurich bank safe and sold over the years.

Hoppler told ARTnews that the paintings in the safe appeared to be Monet’s Vue de Vétheuil, l’hiver (1879); Renoir’s La Baie du Moulin Huet à travers les arbres—Guernsey (1883); and Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (1903). But he said that he could not vouch for their authenticity.

It was the Pissarro that led to the discovery of Lohse’s postwar activities, through the tenacity of the granddaughter of the painting’s original owner. Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps once hung in the villa of the famous publisher Samuel Fischer in Berlin-Grunewald. Before the Fischer family was forced to flee Germany, Fischer’s son-in-law, Gottfried Bermann- Fischer, managed to smuggle part of their art collection out of the country. The family settled in Vienna, and on March 11, 1938, the night before the Anschluss, they fled again. A few days later the Gestapo entered the Fischer house and seized all the family’s belongings, including five Impressionist paintings, the Pissarro among them.

The Fischer family eventually reached the United States. The Dorotheum auction house in Vienna sold their art collection in May 1940. After the war Gottfried Bermann-Fischer started to search for the paintings and the family’s other belongings. Some of the paintings were restituted, but the Pissarro remained missing. After Bermann-Fischer’s death in 1995, his daughter, Gisela Fischer, continued the search.

According to Fischer, she was contacted in January by a representative of the Art Loss Register, who brought her a letter from the American historian Jonathan Petropoulos. In the letter, which was dated December 7, 2006, Petropoulos claimed to have searched for and found the Fischer Pissarro. He wrote of a “contact” who wished to remain anonymous, and who in turn was in touch with the heirs of a Swiss family, who wanted to restitute the painting to Fischer without charge. They also wished to remain anonymous.

Fischer and Norbert Kückelmann, her Munich lawyer, asked Petropoulos for evidence that there really was a holder of the Pissarro painting and that the holder really had commissioned the contact to negotiate with her. Fischer said she was suspicious because she had never hired Petropoulos to search for her painting, and suddenly he appeared, announcing that he had found it but revealing nothing more. In searching for the Pissarro for so many years, Fischer had encountered deceit and lies time and again, so when Petropoulos and another man named Peter Griebert asked her to meet them in Zurich to prove to her that they were authorized by the picture’s holder to negotiate with her, she followed Kückelmann’s instruction to listen to their suggestions and tell them she would discuss the matter with her lawyers.

At the meeting, Griebert and Pet ropoulos showed her digital photos of the Pissarro as proof that they were representatives of the Swiss holder, according to Fischer. Then, she said, they demanded 18 percent of the hammer value of the painting—about $5 million to $7.5 million, based on previous auction prices— for themselves. There was one condition: the holder of the painting could not be informed of the payment. They revealed no information about the holder or the location of the picture.

Kückelmann wrote to them that Fischer was refusing the deal because it was attempted extortion. He informed the Mu nich prosecutor’s office, which is now investigating Griebert,  who turned out to be a Munich art dealer.

Chief prosecutor Christian Schmidt- Sommerfeld said that Griebert had contested the extortion accusation. He added that the investigation did not extend to Petropoulos, because he is an American citizen and his alleged crimes would have been committed outside Germany.

Petropoulos is a prominent figure in the restitution com munity. He is John V. Croul Professor of European History and director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College in California. According to his résumé, he was administrative director and a board member of the Project for the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses and research director of the Clinton-era Presidential Advisory Com mission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. He has been a consultant on looted art to the U.S. State Department. He is the author of three books and numerous articles about the Nazi art world.

In e-mail responses to questions, Petropoulos told ARTnews his version of the story. After the meeting in Zurich, he said, he thought he and Griebert had an oral agreement with Fischer: “Peter Griebert and I thought we had come to an understanding with Frau Fischer about how we would be compensated for our efforts. Note that I made three trips to Europe since December in an effort to try to help recover the painting and also invested hundreds of hours of my own time.”

Petropoulos, who is preparing a book about Lohse, said he had believed that the Pissarro was owned by a Swiss collector whose name was not disclosed to him: “I still don’t know who owned the painting before.” He said that he never thought Griebert might be involved in the activities of the Schönart Anstalt, and that he did not know that this enterprise had been set up by Lohse. In a separate e-mail, Petropoulos said that he had consulted three lawyers who had “all assured me that I was following accepted practices.”

Kückelmann had suspected as early as July of last year that Lohse was the looter and holder of the Pissarro, and had called him several times to ask if he knew anything about the painting. Lohse denied any knowledge. Last November the Munich court started an action to question Lohse about the whereabouts of the Pissarro. To insiders it was clear from that moment that Lohse’s postwar activities would come to light.

Shortly after the inquiry into the activities of Lohse and his associates was initiated, Fischer was offered the restitution of her Pissarro by Petropoulos and Griebert.

When the investigation began, Schönart Anstalt’s lawyer in Vaduz informed the Munich prosecutor that the foundation was being investigated for money laundering in connection with the looted art. In a 215-page document the lawyer submitted, Fischer and Kückelmann found evidence that Lohse held the Pissarro in safe no. 5 in the Zurich Cantonal Bank, and that Peter Griebert had been his sole representative since 1988 and controlled the paintings in the safe. Documents prove that Griebert has entered the vault 20 times since 2003.

Asked for assistance by the Munich prosecutor, Hoppler opened the safe and confiscated the three paintings still inside, as well as documents. The three prosecutors involved—in Munich, Zurich, and Liechtenstein—have not disclosed which paintings were in the safe from 1978 on. Nor have they said where these paintings may have come from. But they did confirm that over the past 29 years a lot of movement of goods has taken place there. Their assumption is that with the aid of Griebert and others, Lohse regularly sold artworks from his secret depot. Between 1983 and 2004, at least 14 works left the bank, they said. It is still unclear, however, which auction houses and galleries handled these sales. But investigators in Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are sure they will find out.

The Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne may also be the target of further investigation. In 2001 Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of the painter and coauthor of a catalogue raisonné of his paintings, gave Gisela Fischer a catalogue of a 1984 exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the museum that included the Fischer Pissarro. Kückelmann in Munich and Michel Halperin, Fischer’s lawyer in Geneva, investigated and discovered that the exhibition included at least five Schönart/Lohse pictures, with no provenance given except “Swiss Private Collection.” Among them were Corot’s Femme assise, tenant une mandoline (1826–28) and Sisley’s L’Abreuvoir à Marly-le-Roi (1875).

The curator of that show was the French art historian and Renoir cataloguer François Daulte, whose death in 1998 led to a major scandal. His heirs found in his safe at the Credit Suisse Bank in Lausanne 24 paintings by Corot, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Morisot, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec that had belonged to Anne-Marie Rouart and should have been given to the Académie des Beaux- Arts and its Marmottan Museum in Paris by the executors of her will, one of whom was Daulte’s son Olivier.

Moreover, the provenance of the Fondation de l’Hermitage’s own art collection of about 800 works is unclear in some cases. German researcher Monika Tatzkow, who recently published (with Gunnar Schnabel) the comprehensive handbook Nazi Looted Art, has discovered that at least some of these works were acquired from the notorious Swiss art dealer Maria Schmidlin, a Nazi collaborator who bought and sold on their behalf artworks stolen, looted, or extorted from Jewish emigrants.

The Fondation de l’Hermitage did not reply to a request from ARTnews for more information.

Gisela Fischer graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She is a dual citizen of the United States and Switzerland. She is still waiting for the return of her painting, which was discovered only a short walk from her home in Zurich. She was robbed of her heritage once, in Vienna at the age of 9, and she is determined not to be robbed a second time, in Zurich at the age of 79.

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