The Monument Men

Today’s New York Times has a piece on a new book financed by retired Texas oilman Robert M. Edsel. The highlight for me are the pictures, published in the new book, which show American GI’s holding up Renaissance masterpieces.
This image shows to soldiers removing a Rembrandt self-portrait from its crate in a salt mine.

The book, called “Rescuing Da Vinci”, tells the story of American and other soldiers, known as the monument men, who recovered works of art looted by the Nazi’s during World War II. Many of these soldiers went on to shape cultural policy in the US after the war. One soldier, Captain James J. Rorimer, went on to become a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the war, a staggering number of works were missing. They had been destined for Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria, or on their way to Hermann Goering’s private collection. A number of the works are some I’ve seen on my travels in Europe, including the stained glass from the Strasbourg Cathedral, and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. I had no idea at the time that they had been taken away by invading German forces. The work sounds fascinating, and will surely increase the growing acclaim for what has become known as the greatest generation.

However, not all allied soldiers were quite so altruistic. Soviet forces hauled off a great deal of looted treasures after the war. Also, one American soldier, Joe Meador, took the Quedlinburg Cathedral treasures from a cave they had been hidden in during the war. The Quedlinburg treasures were a collection of gold, silver and bejeweled reliquaries. Meador had been ordered to guard them, but brought them home to Texas instead. His heirs attempted to sell the works around 1990, and federal prosecutors considered bringing a criminal seizure action, but the Meador family agreed to a settlement with the church, and the objects have now been safely returned.

The work sounds very interesting, but we should remember that not all soldiers were quite so charitable as the so-called monument men. Regardless, if the photos in the NYT are any indication, it should be quite an entertaining read.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Venture Capitalists fuelling Nazi restitution claims?


Georgina Adam of the Art Newspaper had an article last week about some of the potential driving forces behind recent repatriation litigation. Pictured here is Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I” (1907), recently repatriated after binding arbitration found Maria Altmann the rightful of this and four other works.

The increasing number of Nazi repatriation claims, and the booming art market lead to the possibility that not all the parties involved are motivated by high-minded ideals. As Federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff noted during his ruling dismissing a claim over a Picasso, “[art auctions are] all guided by their belief in and beauty…though one might suspect that this is just a fight about money”. In her piece Adam labels some of these opportunistic lawyers “Nazi bounty hunters,”as they are actively seeking war loot. She references Washington lawyer Willi Korte who has been approached by venture capitalists prepared invest $1 million in the hopes that it would lead to a successful restitution claim.

It seems some lawyers are working backwards. They consult art historians about what works might have been looted, and then search for heirs who may want to bring claims. Jost von Trott, a Berlin lawyer, who specializes in this type of research says to the Art Newspaper

It might be that while doing research in these matters, one of the historians [I work with] comes across a further name of another Jewish family who lost property during the Nazi period. If the researchers find another name in the archives, then they or we could contact them as well and see if we can help in recovering lost objects.

Initially, I don’t see anything wrong with the work von Trott describes here. It seems quite a valuable service. Consider though that these firms charge as much as 40% to 50% of the sale price of a work for a successful recovery, while there is no charge if the claim is unsuccessful. Other claims beside the recent Picasso dismissal have been criticized as opportunistic and quickly dismissed as well. A $1.8 billion class action suit was brought by the Association of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artwork and Masterpieces against Sotheby’s.

Though there are certainly clear cases where restitution is called for, some of these cases stretch the limits of the law, and are causing unnecessary and costly litigation for owners of these works. The idea of venture capitalists seeking out an attorney and urging him to pursue research on potential claimants strikes me a particularly unpleasant though, and strongly cuts against the whole nature of restitution claims.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The National Gallery says a work may have been stolen by Nazis

Richard Brooks of the Sunday Times, has a piece yesterday which indicates the National Gallery has a work by Lucas Cranach, “Cupid Complaining to Venus”, which may have been looted by the Nazis. The National Gallery has an entry on its website about the painting here. Elsewhere on the National Gallery website, the work’s provenance is listed as being questionable.

The National Gallery revealed the dubious history of the work after they learned it had been taken from a German Warehouse in 1945 by Patricia Lochridge Hartwell, an American Reporter. Hartwell’s son met with the museum last year. It seems she may have been invited into a German warehouse by American Soldiers in 1945 and allowed to take her pick. It’s yet another example of how spoliation from World War II is still being discovered. The piece does not state why the Gallery has taken so long to come forward with this news. Perhaps it was investigating the claims, or it may have been concerned that the news was about to be broken. The Gallery coming forward in this way of its own volition looks much better than if the questionable provenance was revealed by a claimant.

If a claimant comes forward, the case will be considered by England’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which was set up in 2000 to evaluate claims for spoliation issues. Often, the panel orders compensation for the claimant, as a measure of compromise, and not the whole work. I would look for Germany to initiate a similar panel in the wake of all the restitution which has caused the loss of art from its museums in recent years.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Met Declines to Exhibit a Grosz


The NY Times’ Robin Pogrebin reported yesterday that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has declined to borrow a work by German Expressionist George Grosz. The work, “The Poet Max Hermann-Neisse” (1927) is the subject of yet another Nazi repatriation dispute. The Met has declined to exhibit the work, and substituted another, because the Grosz estate is contemplating a claim for restitution. The work belongs to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Grosz estate has been in negotiations with them for three years.

MoMA is one of the many museums which lists provenance information for its works on its website. The provenance for this work is here. The estate claims that the works had to be sold very quickly, and at a very low price because Grosz and his art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, had to flee Germany because of Nazi persecution. Interestingly, only Flechtheim was Jewish. It was the nature of Grosz’s opinions and art which caused his flight.

Initially, one might wonder how the Grosz estate could have a tenable claim all these years later. The work has been in MoMA’s possession since 1952. Apparently, Grosz saw the work exhibited there in 1958, shortly before his death. Statutes of limitations generally prevent claims from being brought after a period of time. They are based on the policy that as time passes, a fair adjudication of the issues becomes more difficult. New York courts have adopted the demand and refusal rule in interpreting statutes of limitations in the context of illicit art. The rule measures the accrual of a cause of action based on a plaintiff’s actions. To commence an action to recover property from a good faith purchaser, an original owner must prove that the current possessor refused to return the property after a demand by the claimant. See Menzel v. List 22 A.D.2d 647, 253 N.Y.S.2d 43 (1963). Thus it seems that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until 2003, when the Grosz estate first approached MoMA about the return of the work. Thus, in theory at least, they could still bring a restitution claim in time.

However, the substance of that claim seems a bit difficult for the Grosz estate. The works were sold legally (Nicholas Katzenbach, a former attorney general, and an undersecretary of State for the LBJ administration investigated the claim for MoMA and recommended it be rejected), and MoMA would likely have a very good laches defense, which basically serves to protect defendants where a potential plaintiff has unnecessarily delayed bringing a legal action. Also, the value of these works may not be high enough to warrant a protracted legal dispute. A rough estimate I’ve seen thrown around is $3 million. If a work falls short of that standard, bringing a legal claim may not be financially feasible. This work has been estimated at $2 million in today’s market, but there is another work under dispute in MoMA’s collection as well. Of course, the Grosz estate may not be simply concerned with the financial implications of the suit.

Why then did the Met refuse to exhibit the work? It may simply be a matter of not wanting to be associated with the bad publicity. The headline that they are exhibiting a work with a Nazi repatriation issue may have raised an issue that was more controversial than they were willing to take on. However, it seems like the dispute is getting more coverage because of the refusal. In any event, I do not know all of the facts , but the Grosz estate may have a very difficult time prevailing, considering the artist himself saw the work exhibited in 1958 and did not have any misgivings at that point.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Germany Unhappy with the State of Restitution

Apparently, the German Government is considering its options about how best to deal with art sold by or confiscated from Jews under the Nazis the Sydney Morning Herald reports today. This comes in the wake of the record sale at Christie’s last week, in which a number of returned works
helped fuel the market. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors to discuss overhauling the restitution law. This was a predictable development, especially considering the fabulous sums of money these works are getting on the market.

I postulated last week, that something does not quite seem right about the heirs of these works profitting so handsomely off works which had been hanging in German and Austrian museums. Another factor which may be fueling these discussions, is the news that the City of Berlin is in dire financial straits, and may have to sell some of its cultural buildings or works. When Berlin was essentially two cities, it maintained separate concert halls and museums, but since reunification, the city has too many cultural institutions for its budget. This museum is the Sammlung Berggruen, which houses many impressionist and post-impressionist works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Sale of Picasso’s "The Absinthe Drinker" may be halted

Christie’s may have a difficult time breaking the single-auction record today. The Art Newspaper reports the auction house is considering removing the work from the sale. Andrew Lloyd Webber was attempting to sell the work, estimated at $60 million, with the proceeds going to charity. The work, from Picasso’s blue period, was also the subject of a Federal District Court Case, dismissed yesterday.

The dismissal has not been published yet on Lexis, but the New York Times has an overview of the claimant’s case. Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed the claims because the federal law dealing with Holocaust restitution was inapplicable in this case. I’m not an expert on holocaust litigation, so I’m not sure which law the NYT is talking about. Apparently, the claimant has a case in New York state court however.

The claims seem tenuous to me at first blush. The plaintiff, Mr. Schoeps, is the heir of Paul von Mendelssohn-Barthold, a wealthy Berlin banker and art collector. He was forced to sell all his paintings as a result of Nazi persecution. The Nazi’s didn’t actually take the painting, but they seized his assets so that he had no choice but to sell the work. The ruling was just issued yesterday. I’ll try to get my hands on the dismissal and look at the substance of the claims. To me, though, it seems like the claimant will have a very difficult time winning the case. We shouldn’t underestimate the underlying equities of a case either, Lloyd Webber was selling the work in order to donate the proceeds to charity. Though Mr. Schoeps story is indeed a tragic one, I’m not sure he will be using the work, or its proceeds, in as charitable a manner.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com