In recent art world news, on December 29, 2016, the Polish government signed an agreement with the privately owned Princes Czartoryski Foundation to purchase the Czartoryski art collection, which is recognized as one of Europe’s most significant private art collections.  The family foundation has administered the collection since its inception in 1991.

The Czartoryski art collection includes 250,000 historic manuscripts and documents, some of which were previously owned by Polish kings.  The treasured collection also includes 86,000 museum artifacts of which contain 593 precious artworks, most notably, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady With an Ermine” (1489-1490), Rembrandt’s “Landscape With the Good Samaritan” (1638), and sketches by Rembrandt, Auguste Renoir and Albrecht Dürer.

The purchase transaction only changes the status of the family art collection, which was set up more than 200 years ago by Princess Izabela Czartoryska.  It has been reported that the artworks will remain where they are today – most are housed and displayed in the National Museum in Krakow with the exception of “Lady With an Ermine”, which is displayed at the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow.

The legal effort of Poland’s culture ministry “reflects a broader goal by the right-wing Law and Justice government, which since taking power more than a year ago has been striving to re-establish Polish heritage and history as a source of national identity and pride.”  Poland’s deputy prime minister and minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, who signed the agreement, has acknowledged that the $105 million paid for the collection by the Polish government is “way below the market price,” which is widely estimated at more than $2 billion, and the transaction can be viewed more as a “donation.”

Many artworks from the family art collection were looted during the war years, including Raphael’s masterpiece “Portrait of a Young Man” (1513-1514) and were never recovered.  The list of lost art work includes as many as 800 works.  The recently signed agreement “not only gives Poland the rights to the current collection, but also transfers the rights to any future claims to works of art that may be retrieved.”

As recently reported in the New York Times, the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a prominent German art dealer and collector, brought suit in federal court in Manhattan earlier this week against the German state of Bavaria over alleged Nazi-looted art works.  The heirs argue that the German state of Bavaria has refused to return art works that were looted by the Nazis before World War II.

The Flechtheim heirs seek the return of eight paintings by artists Max Beckmann, Juan Gris and Paul Klee from the Bavarian State Paintings Collection.  According to the complaint, the eight paintings include Beckmann’s “Duchess of Malvedi” (1926), “Still Life with Cigar Box” (1926), “Quappi in Blue” (1926), “Dream—Chinese Fireworks” (1927), “Champagne Still Life” (1929) and “Still Life with Studio Window” (1931); Gris’ “Cruche et Verre Sur un Table” (1916) and Klee’s “Grenzen des Verstandes” (1927).

The heirs had been in negotiations with the Bavarian government for seven years prior to filing their suit.  In their court filing, they accused the German state of not meeting international commitments on the restitution of Nazi-looted art.  Specifically, the complaint states “Bavaria’s refusal to confront its responsibility has persisted since the war” and its “chain of title to the paintings is defective because it was rooted in the seizure of Flechtheim’s property in violation of international law.”

In the complaint brought by the son and widow of Flechtheim’s nephew, the heirs allege that the works being sought were among those Flechtheim was forced to leave behind as he fled Germany and his galleries were taken over.

The Bavarian government has previously taken the position that the paintings were not looted art and that the works were sold by Flechtheim in 1932 before the Nazis came to power.  And, in 1974, the paintings were later donated to the Bavarian State Paintings Collections by Munich art dealer, Günther Franke.

The Flechtheim heirs, however, dispute the Bavarian government’s position, citing evidence that they claim shows the paintings were still in Flechtheim’s possession in 1934 after the Nazis came to power.  The heirs criticize the German state for its refusal to open records that they claim would be helpful in researching the fate of the paintings.  Their court filing cites a letter sent last year to the governor of Bavaria by nearly 30 members of United States Congress requesting “‘greater dialogue and cooperation to fulfill’” international principles aimed at supporting the restitution of art seized by the Nazis.”

The case is Hulton et al. v. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen et al., United States District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-09360.

In recent art world news, a Nazi-looted sculpture has been restituted to the rightful owners by the City of Berlin.  The looted art is a marble sculpture by Reinhold Begas entitled Susanna (1869-72) and the rightful owners are the heirs of the former publishing mogul Rudolf Mosse.

At the turn of the century, Mosse was one of the three wealthiest men in Berlin.  According to The Art Newspaper, Mosse’s “palatial neo-Baroque home on Leipziger Platz was filled with paintings, sculptures, antique furnishings and tapestries.  His collection included works by Max Liebermann, Carl Spitzweg, Wilhelm Leibl, Hans Makart and Adolph Menzel.”

Mosse was a successful publisher of the Berliner Tagesblatt newspaper, “a staunch advocate of democracy even before the Weimar Republic.”  After his passing in 1920, Mosse’s son-in-law, Hans Lachmann-Mosse managed the newspaper until he and his wife, Felicia Lachmann-Mosse, were forced to flee the Nazi regime eventually emigrating to the United States from Switzerland.

Mosse’s collection had been bequeathed to his daughter, Ms. Felicia Lachmann-Mosse, but had become lost after her emigration.  In 1934, the family’s possessions were seized and sold at auction and the family never saw the proceeds.

The Mosse Art Restitution Project was established by the family in 2012 in order to locate the missing art works.  Since the founding of the Project, eight works were returned in 2015.

According to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the marble sculpture will remain on loan to Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where it is currently on display.

The New York Times has reported that two van Gogh paintings that were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002 have been recovered in Italy.

According to the article, the paintings were recovered as part of an ongoing investigation into organized crime by Italian authorities. Specifically the Italian authorities were investigating the Amato Pagano clan of the Camorra Mafia family, which is allegedly associated with international cocaine trafficking.

The works in question, “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884/85), were apparently stolen by burglars who climbed to the roof of the museum using a ladder, and then left through side of the building using a rope.

By Daniel Schnapp

On the heels of a shocking report last month that artworks stolen from Holocaust victims were returned to Nazis and their families after World War II, the Bavarian Parliament art committee, Kunstausschuss, has demanded an accounting from government officials on the extent of the system to resell art to Nazi families and a count of the total number of looted artworks that remain in government possession that could be returned to the rightful heirs.

The findings were released by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London-based non-profit that researched the archives for certain rightful heirs and made critical discoveries.  Among other information released, in some instances, artworks were sold at significantly lowered prices to the families of Nazi officials instead of being restituted to the rightful heirs.  In other instances, the artworks were kept by the state of Bavaria.  The study reveals that state-owned museums in Munich profited from art looted by the Nazis at least until the 1990s.

In a statement, the Commission’s co-chair Anne Webber said:  “The investigation must include clarification of the provenance of the artworks so that the rightful owners of any works that were looted can be identified and assured of restitution or compensatory justice.”  Webber further added that the Bavarian government “must also ensure that all documents from the State Paintings Collection and other relevant government bodies are published and made fully accessible.”

The Commission had also announced the immediate resolution of the restitution claim that had initially led to the larger investigative probe.  The Commission’s investigation was prompted after the rightful heirs of collectors Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, who were trying to recover about 160 artworks stolen from the Krauses, had sufficient reason to believe that some of their paintings would be in the state-owned museum in Munich.

According to the report, “[r]ecords show they were handed over to Bavaria by the US in 1952 for purpose of restitution” and “[t]o their shock, they found they had instead been given by the Bavarian State in the early 1960s to Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach, daughter of Hitler’s close friend and photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and wife of the notorious ‘Gauleiter’ [Hitler’s district governor] of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach.”

For further information about how this murky chapter of history came to light and the government investigation, see Bavarian Parliament Will Investigate Claims that Looted Art Was Returned to Nazis and Nazi Art Loot Returned … to Nazis.

 

In recent art world news is a story about a treasured 1918 oil painting by Amedeo Modigliani of a seated chocolate merchant in a hat and tie holding a cane (“Seated Man with a Cane”).  Art dealer and billionaire David Nahmad is principal of the Nahmad holding company (International Art Center) that purchased the work at auction in 1996 and has owned it since then.

The grandson of a Jewish antiques dealer, however, claims that the Modigliani painting is the same work that was stolen from his relative’s shop in Paris during the Nazi occupation and sold off over 70 years ago.

For nearly five years, the grandson, Philippe Maestracci, and the Mondex Corporation, a company specializing in the recovery of looted art on behalf of beneficiaries, have pursued a claim in New York state and federal courts for the work, which was once estimated to be valued at around $25 million.

Nahmad, a scion of a family of international art dealers, remains determined that he will not settle the case.  In support of his position, the art dealer relies on an obscure French court document dated 1947 that he asserts raises doubt as to whether his painting is the same Modigliani painting that antiques dealer, Oscar Stettiner, had tried to recover after the Second World War.  The court document, which was filed in connection with Stettiner’s claim in 1946 to recover the painting, describes the work as a “Modigliani self-portrait” and not as a painting of a chocolate merchant.

Conflicting evidence cited by Maestracci includes the provenance listing when Nahmad’s holding company attempted to sell the disputed painting through Sotheby’s in 2008.  The auction house listed Stettiner as a possible previous owner of the painting and indicated that the painting had been sold anonymously between 1940 and 1945.

Nahmad is determined to fight on in the courts, but has said if it is proven that the painting is looted art by the Nazis, he will return it.

For further information on this prolonged dispute since 2011, see Dealer’s Estate Sues Nahmad Gallery Seeking Return of Modigliani Portrait and The Art of Secrecy.

Law Street Media posted an interesting article questioning the FBI’s use of public funds as reward money for information about stolen art.  Recently, the FBI offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the thieves who stole prints of Andy Warhol’s soup cans from the Springfield Art Museum.  The amount of the award seems high when you consider that a single print of Warhol’s soup cans sold last year for $30,660 at auction.

Food for thought.

Read the Law Street Media article here.

The New York Times recently reported that Germany will fund an additional year of research to establish the provenance of art works from the vast collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt.  Gurlitt was a reclusive Munich art collector who had amassed a collection of 1,500 art works acquired by his father who was a dealer for the Nazis.

The Gurlitt task force appointed by Germany’s culture minister had been established after the collection surfaced in 2013.  After a nearly $2 million investigation over two years, it was announced by the task force earlier this year that it had identified the rightful owners of just five of the art works whose provenance was uncertain.

As time passes by with fewer survivors from the Nazi era, it has become increasingly difficult for Germany to carry out provenance research and restitution.  The passing of Mr. Gurlitt in May 2014 also complicated the task force’s restitution efforts.  In particular, there are two sides to a restitution claim in cases where there is a museum and a claimant, but there is only one side in the Gurlitt case because Mr. Gurlitt is no longer living.  As such, German researchers are tasked with the responsibility to conduct essentially flawless, but slow provenance work on the collection.

The task force completed its provenance and restitution work at the end of last year and its report was released in January of this year.  The complete report of the task force can be accessed online in German with a summary in English.

The Center for Lost Art in Magdeburg is now tasked with the responsibility for the Gurlitt collection in which a staff of 20 will be expanded, if there is a need.  The German culture minister’s total budget for provenance research is about $6.5 million, which is three times more than it was three years ago.

It has been reported that only 30 to 50 of the 1,500 art works from the Gurlitt collection were of exceptional quality and much of the remaining art works include works on paper, drawings, multiples, and prints, and are typically undocumented.

Germany’s culture minister intends to exhibit the works from the collection in Bonn sometime this year and later in Bern.

It should be noted that most museums have committed to the 1998 Washington conference principles on the identification and return of Nazi looted art, but private owners are not bound by the agreement.  Although there is a 30-year statute of limitations applied to stolen property in Germany, there is nothing binding private owners to restitution of Nazi looted art.  While Germany does have a board referred to as the Limbach Commission that mediates in controversial art restitution cases, the board can only issue recommendations.

It will be interesting to learn about the progress of the Center’s provenance research and restitution efforts over the next year.

 

The New York Times recently reported the theft of 17 paintings taken from the Museo di Castelvecchio, a museum located in Verona, Italy that is known not only for its artworks, but also for the historical and architectural value of the building that houses its collection.

Four men forced their way into the museum, disarmed the guard, and removed the 17 paintings that included works by Andrea Mantegna, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jacopo Tintoretto.  The estimated the total value of the stolen artworks is between $10.7 million and $16 million.

Italy’s specialized art theft police force is leading an investigation.  Read more here.

Earlier today the International New York Times reported on a fascinating new authentication system that would allow living artists to “sign” their artworks with very small amounts of synthetic DNA.  Being that my passions include science and art, I couldn’t wait to write up this week’s Art Law blog post on this new scientific marking protocol (still under development) for authenticating art.

The Global Center for Innovation at the State University of New York at Albany is behind the development of this science-based approach for art authentication as the recipient of $2 million in funding from the ARIS Title Insurance Corporation, which specializes in art.  About two years ago, the New York Times reports, the Center, recognized for its work in the areas of bioengineering, encryption and nanotechnology, began the development of an approach to “infuse paintings, sculptures and other artworks with complex molecules of DNA created in the lab.”  It was important to have a marker that was difficult to locate and not susceptible to environmental issues or tampering and, of course, that living artists would embrace such an approach.

With forgeries one of the most “vexing problems” facing the global art market today, and artists’ foundations, curators, and independent experts no longer authenticating works for fear of being sued, the Center’s approach could not have come at a better time than now.

The Center’s new approach would “implant synthetic DNA, not the personal DNA of the artists, because of privacy issues and because a person’s DNA could conceivably be stolen and embedded, thus undermining the authority of such a marking protocol.”  According to the developers, the bioengineered DNA would be “unique to each item and provide an encrypted link between the art and a database that would hold the consensus of authoritative information about the work.”  A scanner, accessible to anyone in the art industry wishing to verify a work, could read the details of the DNA embedded in the artwork.

Artists and owners would need to purchase a “tag” (estimated to cost around $150) that could be used in applying the DNA.  Upon application, the “DNA would penetrate the work at the molecular level, so removing the tag would not eliminate the item’s forensic signature.”  In the development of the approach, it was critical that the application of the tags have no impact on the artwork.  ARIS, the financial backer of the approach, observes that deciphering and replicating the DNA would be all but impossible as even sophisticated counterfeiters would “leave [behind] microscopic forensic evidence” if they attempted to remove or replace the DNA.

Supporters of this new approach assert that potential purchasers and sellers could also check artworks for DNA codes to determine whether the works have been stolen—such action could block the resale of artworks by auction houses and galleries and lead to their recovery.

As of this report, about three dozen internationally recognized artists, archives, foundations and museums have signed up to test the technology, which could be ready by early next year.