Swiss raid bank safe belonging to late Nazi art thief

PR Inside 1 June 2007
ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) - Paintings from a Swiss bank safe linked to a notorious Nazi art thief have been confiscated as part of an investigation into whether the heir of a Jewish art collector was blackmailed, authorities said Friday.

The Zurich prosecutor's office said it raided the safe as part of a three-nation probe of a German art dealer accused of conspiring with an American art historian to withhold a painting by French impressionist Camille Pissarro from its rightful owner unless she paid a finder's fee equal to 18 percent of its value.

Prosecutor Ivo Hoppler said the safe was rented by a trust based in the neighboring principality of Liechtenstein and was accessed by Bruno Lohse, who spirited away art from all over Europe during World War II on behalf of Hermann Goering, Hitler's top aide.

Lohse died two months ago in Munich.

Confirming reports in the Swiss weekly Cash and German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Hoppler said Zurich officials were acting on a judicial assistance request from Munich prosecutors, who are investigating how the unidentified art dealer obtained Pissarro's Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.

The painting was stolen from Jewish publisher Samuel Fischer in 1938. The investigation began on a complaint from his niece, who was not identified.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung estimated the value of the painting at £5 million (US$6.7 million). That would put the fee demanded by the men at £900,000 (US$1.2 million).

The paper said the German dealer claimed to have acquired the painting from Lohse in good faith in the 1950s.

Munich chief prosecutor Christian Schmidt-Sommerfeld said the dealer contested the blackmail accusation and argued that requesting a finder's fee was normal in such cases.

Schmidt-Sommerfeld said the investigation does not extend to the art historian because he is an American citizen and his alleged crimes would have been committed outside Germany.

Hoppler said he could not yet confirm whether the Pissarro piece was among those found in the safe kept at the Zuercher Kantonalbank. He said he would inform prosecutors in Munich and Liechtenstein of his findings by early next week.
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