Archives: Art Recovery/Theft

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.

 

 

In a recent press release issued on September 22, 2015 by the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), the museum announced that it will return four antiquities purchased from Subhash Kapoor, a New York City art dealer currently under investigation by the United States Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for illegally importing and selling stolen antiquities and other art objects and for providing false histories of prior ownership (provenance) to purchasers.

Kapoor, a naturalized United States citizen, was the owner of the Manhattan-based Art of the Past gallery for 35 years and sold Asian antiquities to museums and private collectors throughout the world.  Kapoor’s former gallery manager is also under investigation.  In October 2011, Kapoor was arrested in Germany and in July 2012 was extradited to India, where he is currently incarcerated and awaiting trial.

TMA had conducted a thorough investigation into all art objects that it had obtained from Kapoor, Kappor’s gallery manager, and the Art of the Past gallery.  According to the press release, TMA has cooperated fully with the United States officials’ investigation of Kapoor and his gallery manager, and has reached out to the Indian government through diplomatic channels for assistance in determining the provenance of select art objects in TMA’s collection.

As a result of the museum’s internal investigation, TMA determined that the provenance documents of four of the antiquities it had purchased from Kappor, Kapoor’s gallery manager, and the Art of the Past gallery, were falsified or otherwise could not be authenticated.  The four art objects set to be returned to India include as follows:

a stone stele of Varaha Rescuing the Earth (acquired in 2001); a previously announced return of a nearly 1,000-year-old bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha described as being from south India, Tamil Nadu (acquired in 2006); an 18th-century ornately patterned gold with enamel pandan box, described as being of Mughal origin (acquired in 2008); and Rasikapriya from the Samdehi Ragini, an 18th-century watercolor with gold on paper (acquired in 2010).”

TMA purchased a total of eight objects from Kapoor between 2001 and 2010 – all of which have been previously on public display at the museum.  In 2006 and 2007, TMA received 54 small ceramic objects donated by Kapoor and 64 works on paper donated by Kapoor’s gallery manager – with the exception of one, none of the donated objects have been on public display at the museum.  TMA is set to coordinate the return of the four antiquities and all of the donated objects with United States representatives of the Republic of India.  As for the four other art objects acquired from Kapoor by TMA, the museum has confirmed provenance and such objects will remain in its collection.

For further information about and images of the subject antiquities purchased from Kapoor by the TMA and donated to the TMA, please click here.

As recently reported by ArtNews, French customs officials on the island of Corsica have seized a $27.4 million painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Head of a Young Woman (1906) that was banned from leaving Spain.  The prized painting had been declared a cultural treasure by a Spanish court back in May.

Corsican authorities had been tipped off about the attempted smuggling of the Picasso masterpiece en route to Switzerland.  According to the authorities, a search of the boat’s cargo revealed documents confirming that the artwork was of cultural importance and that it was leaving its home country of Spain without any legal permission.

The smuggled Picasso oil painting is from the artist’s “Rose Period” and features light pinks and beiges and is particularly prized because it shows Picasso’s shift into a Cubist style.

 

As recently reported by Artnet, there has been quite a bit of speculation surrounding the buyer’s identity of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s painting entitled Portrait of Gertrud Loew-Felsövanyi (1902) sold at Sotheby’s London back in June for $39 million.  Recent credible reports confirm that the buyer is British billionaire businessman Joe Lewis, who came into his fortune by way of foreign exchange market (forex) trading in the early 1990s.  Lewis’ art collection is estimated to be worth around $1 billion and includes works by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, sculptor Henry Moore, and, of course, Klimt.  Lewis is known to have a preference for Austrian modernism.

According to Artnet, the provenance of the Nazi-looted Klimt painting was determined just recently before the Sotheby’s London auction in which the painting was returned to the subject’s granddaughter.  Shortly thereafter, it was decided by the Felsövanyi family along with the Klimt Foundation to consign the artwork to Sotheby’s and share the profits.

The recent sale of the Klimt artwork has reignited a long debate back in Austria as critics of current restitution practices expressed their concern that “restituted masterpieces all too often disappear from public view as they go to private hands.”  Artnet notes that because public institutions are unable to raise the necessary funds to acquire expensive important artworks, these masterpieces often tend to find their way into either freeports or the art collections of the very affluent.

The painting will be on loan to the Neue Galerie in New York for an exhibition scheduled for next year entitled Women of Vienna’s Golden Age 1900-1918, which will run from September 2016 to January 2017.  The Neue Galerie is a museum dedicated to early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design.

Although the Klimt painting will be on display for a short time in New York later next year, the Austrian media predicts that the chances of it becoming permanently publicly accessible are “slim.”

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a police raid in Germany that focused attention on an art market where collectors and dealers buy and sell works by artists favored by the Nazis. Read the full article here.

In a coordinated raid, German police recently seized nine “lost” Nazi-commissioned sculptures. If the investigation reveals that the works were in fact commissioned by the state and therefore property of the German government, then those from whom the sculptures were seized could face charges. Read more information about the raid here.

The raid shines a light on the black market for Nazi art and paraphernalia, the sale of which is allowed only under limited circumstances in Germany. While tens of thousands of Germans illicitly deal in Nazi paraphernalia, only 30 to 40 people in Germany comprise the Nazi art market.

Nazi art is frowned upon of course because of artworks relationship with fascist regime and most mainstream art galleries and auction houses in Germany avoid displaying and selling Nazi-commissioned artworks.