Massive trove of modern art discovered

The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011
The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011

The recovery rate for stolen art may take a dramatic shift towards original owners. The German magazine Focus has broken the story of an incredible find. One of the most remarkable discoveries of stolen art that I can think of. A reported 1,500 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, and others was stored in an apartment in Berlin for years. The works were likely spoliated by Nazis during the 1930s-40s.

When authorities executed a search warrant they found the works stacked in a dark room in a flat in this apartment block in Munich. They were hidden there by Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, who was the son of a Munich art dealer.

The works were discovered after tax authorities executed a search warrant of Gurlitt’s apartment in 2011. He was stopped on a train bound for Switzerland with 9,000 euros in cash, and had plans to deposit the money in undeclared Swiss accounts. When the authorities searched his home they found what must be one of the largest ever single recoveries of stolen art.

Continue reading “Massive trove of modern art discovered”

Stealing the Mystic Lamb Review

I’ve just finished reading Noah Charney’s “Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece”.  This review should probably begin with a disclosure.  Noah is a friend and colleague, first an internet acquaintance, and now we meet up every summer in Amelia during ARCA’s MA certificate program which he founded

This work tells the story of one massive 2-ton altar piece, the single most stolen work of art of all time, and one that should be familiar to anyone who has taken an introduction to art history course.

After dropping the reader into history as allied forces are searching for the altar piece during World War II, we learn early on that this work was the prize of Hitler and Napoleon.  That this massive masterpiece was nearly destroyed many times over.  Yet somehow it has endured. 

And we should all be glad it has.  The object itself is stunning, Charney in the first chapter takes the reader through the importance of the painting itself, how it helped launch the career of Jan van Eyck, how art historians have puzzled over how much of the work was completed by van Eyck’s brother Hubert, how the artist used intricate symbolism, how it helped usher in the era of oil painting and beautiful detail.  But perhaps most importantly, the discussion of this painting and all it symbolizes reminded me why art matters, and how a stunning work of art can change the way we all see the world, and each viewer gets a chance to re-learn or even re-evaluate those shifts in opinion.  And in the end the work begins with a lively account for why individuals have stolen, mutilated, and coveted this work of art.

Next the reader learns about the artist himself, about the “Magician in the Red Turban”. the reader also learns about attribution, the recent decline of connoisseurship in the appreciation of art, how the movement of art can cause the re-appraisal of works of art as  happened when the Albert Barnes Collection is preparing to move and many of its Old Master paintings were found to have been misattributed.  We learn about the creation of the Louvre, the place the Ghent altarpiece played in the creation of that museum, and how many of the arguments made for a universal museum were made by Dominique Vivant Denon who served as the architect of the art looting during Napleon’s reign.   

Charney spends great care telling the story of the altarpiece during both World Wars, noting the debt we art theft writers owe to Karl Meyer, Robert Edsel and Brett Witter’s fine work telling the story of the Monuments Men, and Lynn Nicholas among many others.  Yet what really comes through in Charney’s book is a breathless story which merges history, towering figures like Napoleon or Hitler and their associates, art, artists, and imagery that revalidates why so many are interested in the study of art theft:  these are really good stories.  And it ends with an epilogue, yet another of the work’s enduring mysteries, that should not be spoiled here.  

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

    Student Comment on Recovering WWII-Era Art from Russia

    Michael Cosgrove has a student comment on remedies for the return of art from Russia:  Still Seeing Red: Legal Remedies for Post-Communist Russia’s Continued Refusal to Relinquish Art Stolen During World War II, 12 Gonzaga Journal of International Law (2009).  From his introduction:

                When the Red Army entered Germany at the end of World War II, it seized 2.3 million objects including paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. At the time of this writing in 2009, the bulk of those objects are still in Russia. In addition to hundreds of thousands of pieces that belonged to German citizens and German museums the Russians hold paintings that the Nazis had stolen from all over Europe. Many of the works in question have been kept in locked rooms in the basements of museums since the end of the war. Although there were some encouraging signs that the art might be returned, or at least allowed to be displayed, with the end of the communist government, it does not appear that Russia is considering a large scale return of the art at this time. To the contrary, the Russian government has long held that the art is restitution for the destruction and theft of Russian art by the Nazis, and passed a law in 1998 that declares that the art is state property. This article explores the international legal remedy for procuring that art from the Russian government. “[U]ntil every one of those paintings, prints, sculptures, tapestries, and artifacts is returned, it will be impossible for us to walk through most of the world’s museums and galleries without wondering if we are staring into the haunted face of the spoils of war.” At the outset, a conclusion: favorable verdicts are obtainable, but the successful conclusion of litigation will only be the beginning of the exceedingly difficult task of enforcing a verdict against an obstinate and neo-nationalistic Russian government.

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

    Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act takes effect

    New legislation which took effect on Friday will allow national museums in England and Scotland to act to return works of art, based on the recommendations of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.  The panel resolves claims arising from the loss of objects to the Nazis.  There have been nine instances of wrongful takings in which claimants were compensated, yet the national institutions have been forbidden from returning objects outright.  The only remedy was payment.  This is a welcome change, and allows UK museums to do the just thing.  Andrew Dismore, MP sponsored the act, and said:

    It shows what could be achieved by a determined backbencher: by rolling out my sleeping bag and sleeping on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight, I was able to become the first in the queue to apply for Second Readings after the balloted Bills, and this tactic paid off.

    While I do not envisage the Act having to be used very frequently, this is an important moral step, to ensure that we can close yet a further chapter on the appalling crimes of the Holocaust.

    1. UK museums can return looted art, BBC, November 13, 2009.
    Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

    Germany Creates a Restitution Commission

    Germany has decided to create a kind of Nazi Spoliation Office. From the AP:

    BERLIN (AP) — A new office within Germany’s Institute for Museum Research is opening in January to help identify and research art stolen by the Nazis, Germany’s culture minister said Wednesday.

    The office, which comes under the State Museums of Berlin, will help museums, libraries and archives identify items that were taken from their rightful owners during the Nazi period, Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said.

    “I expect from this an important push in Germany in the clarifying of restitution questions,” he said.

    Neumann founded a working group to look into how to deal with restitution issues, after Berlin sparked controversy with a decision last year to return Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” to the heirs of a Jewish collector who said the Nazis forced the family to sell it in the 1930s.

    Some art experts questioned whether the expressionist work was sold under duress and whether its return was legal.

    With the new office, which has a $1.47 million annual budget, Neumann said he hoped the restitution process would be better coordinated and more transparent.

    This appears to be a good idea, and perhaps will preclude the need for private legal disputes when, for example, these works are displayed abroad as is the case with Schiele’s Portrait of Wally. Will this commission help to return works to claimants? Offer settlements? Or, will it instead merely warn German institutions that certain objects are suspect and should not be loaned abroad?

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

    Klimt Dispute


    In another spoliation story in today’s NY Times, A grandson of a woman who died in the Holocaust may be considering legal or other claims for this work, Blooming Meadow (1906) by Gustav Klimt. Georges Jorish is considering legal claims or seeking a settlement. It seems the impetus for the new claims is the publication of another catalogue raisonné, this one by Alfred Weidinger which states the painting belonged to Jorisch’s grandmother.

    The work now belongs to Leonard Lauder, who purchased the work in 1983. Wouldn’t a legal claim have expired under the statute of limitations? Probably not. New York is one of the most generous jurisdictions in the world for original owners. A limitations period won’t begin to run in New York until a demand and refusal has been made. Other legal defenses may be available to Lauder if the claimant delayed, but here it seems Jorisch is considering a claim after new information.

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

    Another Dutch Holocaust Claim


    Four heirs of art dealer Nathan Katz have brought a claim for 227 works recovered in German at the end of World War II reports Marlise Simons in todays NY Times. Among the contested works is this painting by Salomon van Ruysdael, Horsefair at Valkenburg. The claim was made public Friday, just as the Dutch were moving to discourage new restitution claims.

    These restitution disputes are ill-suited to an adversarial litigation process with one winner and one loser as is the current situation in the United States. Professor Norman Palmer has persuasively made this case in the UK, while Jennifer Anglim Kreder has proposed an interesting idea. She makes a great case for an International Tribunal for dealing with Nazi-Looted Art. It’s forthcoming in the Brooklyn Law Review, an early version is up on SSRN. In the Netherlands the claims are studied by the Restitution Commission which advises the government on the return of objects lost or stolen when the Germans invaded in WWII.

    Here’s an excerpt of the NYT story:

    Although the Dutch government in exile had decreed that citizens could not trade with the enemy, many Dutch art dealers, both Jews and non-Jews, sold works to eager German collectors, who circulated wish lists in the first few years of the war. Dutch traditional painting was sought after, because the Nazis did not consider it “degenerate” art.

    After the war the Dutch government returned 28 paintings that the Katz brothers had claimed. Among them was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man,” believed to have been used to buy their mother’s freedom.

    Evelien Campfens, a member of the Restitution Commission in The Hague, said the claim of the Katz heirs would “be a complex case, with many different aspects to it: it will take time.” She said that the Katz brothers were important dealers involved in many transactions, and that many important paintings had passed through their hands.

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