Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse’s art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting’s prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

“Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,” Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse’s will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he’s sure none of the paintings in Lohse’s private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis’ specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

“There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950’s, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

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

Stolen Greek Statue Returned to Greece


This 1,900 year-old torso has been returned to Athens after it was seized in Switzerland. It was recovered in March from the Swiss city of Basel. It had been taken in 1991 from the island of Crete. Switzerland has historically been a transit state for many antiquities, however it has worked to change that in recent months by signing on to the largely symbolic 1970 UNESCO Convention, but also implementing that convention effectively by signing bilateral agreements with Peru, Italy and Greece.

I wonder why the Swiss dealer David Cahn who had the statue was not subject to any criminal penalties, or indeed why he gave up the object so freely. Had the object been in the United States, he would have been subject to Federal Prosecution.

This object was not illicitly excavated, but rather was stolen along with 9 other items. From the comments of the Greek Culture Minister George Voulgarakis, it seems he is connecting the return of this theft with the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum. Clearly though, the two cases are much different.

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

Prosecution of Marion True and Robert Hecht Resumes in Italy (UPDATED)


There is a slew of new reports marking the continuation of the high-profile antiquities prosecutions in Rome. The New York Times has a piece, and the Washington Post picks up an AP story. Francesco Rutelli also has an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, which can be downloaded from the Italian Ministry of Culture’s website here.

Is there anything new being said? Not really. Much of the back and forth involves trial tactics and public posturing on the part of Rutelli. Though he has some good arguments in his opinion piece, much of it is frustratingly vague or inaccurate. When he speaks of Italy “renouncing possession of these works of art” in reference to 46 contested objects held by the Getty, he conveniently fails to acknowledge the Getty has agreed to return 25 of them. Also, his claims of providing “exhaustive and reliable documentation” to the Getty may be true, however if the evidence were as damning as he indicates, Italy would certainly have first, asked US federal prosecutors to initiate a civil forfeiture action as they did in US v. An Antique Platter of Gold 184 F.3d 131 (2d Cir. 1999). This would have allowed for the return of the objects, while the US Department of Justice foots the legal bills. Thus, it seems to me that the evidence Ruteli is discussing may not be quite as damning as he indicates. He also makes it seem as if the issue of this bronze Athlete found in the Adriatic sea clearly belongs to Italy. This is a gross oversimplification. There seems to be good arguments that the object was found in international waters, and was in fact Greek in origin. Though he may be right that the bronze came ashore in Italy, the law violated would be an Export restriction, not a state-vesting provision. This makes Italy’s claim much different. If nothing else, the article was well-timed to coincide with the reopening of the trial in Rome though.

At the trial itself, the testimony of Pietro Casasanta seems intriguing. He details over 50 years of his experience dealing in Italian antiquities. He was testifying for the prosecution, not because he had any ties with the defendants, but because he played a role in the antiquities trade in general. He indicated that “From one day to the next we went from art experts to criminals…I saved thousands of artifacts that would have been ground into cement. … It’s a shame that they don’t make me a senator for life.” Interesting comments, especially given Italy’s recent efforts at stemming the trade. Perhaps the biggest gain Italy has made in recent years is cutting off Switzerland as a transit state. Switzerland has recently signed on to the UNESCO Convention and, more importantly, secured a bilateral deal with Italy.

UPDATE:

Lee Rosenbaum continues her good work on this controversy by soliciting a response from Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum. He clarifies many of the charges leveled against him. Perhaps most interesting, he indicates that the Getty is careful when repatriating objects. In fact, one of the objects claimed by Italy “a Kore … had been claimed by both Italy and Greece, and we now have agreed to return that object to Greece. This is precisely why we have to respond to these claims very carefully.” That seems reasonable, and in fact much of Brand’s comments paint a picture of the Getty attempting to work out a reasonable compromise with Italy.

Of course, the true nature of the negotiation process may lie somewhere between Brand and Rutelli’s conflicting accounts. However Rutelli often seems inclined to elevate the rhetoric. However, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, it would seem that the Italians have accomplished a great deal. Certainly, reputable institutions and museums are now thinking twice about acquiring Greek, Roman, or Etruscan objects which might have come from Italy. A protracted public relations struggle is certainly not good for the public image.

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