Spotting Nazi-looted art priority for auction houses

Canadian Jewish News 2 November 2006
Janice Arnold

MONTREAL — Two of the largest auction houses in the world now routinely research the provenance of art consigned with them to ensure that it was not confiscated during the Nazi era.

The heads of restitution at Sotheby’s and Christie’s said that, as more and more of the hundreds of thousands works of art the Nazis looted throughout Europe come on the market, they are increasingly acting as intermediaries between possessors and claimants.

Lucian Simmons of Sotheby’s and Monica Dugot of Christie’s, both lawyers by profession and based in New York, said they have had some success in restituting spoliated property without going to court. Reaching a settlement, however, is typically a very delicate and lengthy process, and varies from surrender of the work to the owner and claimant agreeing to sell it.

Simmons and Dugot were panelists at a program titled “Where Did All the Art Go? Reclaiming Works Looted During the Nazi Period” at Concordia University, as part of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s annual education series.

“Today we are checking provenance, in the same way we check condition, authorship and medium. It’s part of our everyday life,” Simmons said. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s generally keep the work until a resolution is found.

Simmons has a team of two full-time lawyers and two art historians, as well as consultants, working on restitution.

Besides being concerned with seeing that justice is done, Simmons said it is “self-preservation” that drives Sotheby’s to be so scrupulous in avoiding looted art.

“Sotheby’s is very cautious about potential legal exposure, either civil or criminal, varying by country.”

It’s also just good business, because any slip carries the “potential for bad publicity” and, in any case, “nobody would buy [a work] when it is tainted… We are being as paranoid as we can for our own benefit and that of our clients.”

There’s now a database of 13,000 “sensitive” names that are red flags for possible problems.

Research includes checking the work’s documentation as far back as possible, and clues on the back of paintings, such as labels and customs stamps. Occasionally, the auctioneers have gone through the Nazis’ own records. They also work with the private Art Loss Register based in London, which monitors all sales worldwide, and the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO), which is part of the New York State Banking Department.

Litigation should be avoided, both panelists said.

“It can be traumatic for the claimant; there’s huge financial and emotional costs,” said Dugot, adding that it’s also complicated because different national jurisdictions may be involved. “Generally speaking, the parties have been reasonable… Often the work was bought in good faith.”

One of the biggest cases Simmons has handled was the restoration of a 19th-century Eugene Delacroix painting consigned to Sotheby’s in London 31/2 years ago. It had belonged to Max Silverberg of Breslau, whose entire major art collection was taken by the Nazis. It took three years, but an out-of-court settlement was reached between the consignors and the Silverberg heirs. The painting sold for more than $2 million (US) in London five months ago.

The vast majority of the looted art is not anywhere near that valuable, and Simmons thinks between 90 to 95 per cent of masterpieces have been restored at least to their original countries, thanks to the effort of the Allies after World War II.

There is always an heir, even if the family was wiped out, he said, adding that it’s usually a national or local government.

The recent return of Emile Lecomte-Vernet’s Aimee, a Young Egyptian to the Max Stern estate took only a few months after the consignor was informed of its history. The party told Sotheby’s, “Please give it back.”

The great majority of the works that were sold under duress, seized outright or lost when the owners fled remain unclaimed or even located.

Christie’s was involved in the restoration this year of the valuable Herbstsonne painting by Egon Schiele, which was in the confiscated inventory of Viennese art dealer Karl Grunwald. It was discovered by chance after a private French collector brought it into Christie’s in Paris for evaluation.

That was a fairly easy case. The possessor had bought the painting without knowledge of its past, but readily returned it to Grunwald’s descendants, who are now scattered in the United States, France and Austria.

Also this year a Philips Koninck drawing that had been looted in 1942 from E.J. Otto was discovered to have been confiscated by the Nazis and attempts were made to return it. As Otto has no known heirs, it was decided to entrust the work to the Leo Baeck Institute, with the understanding that if heirs are found, it will go to them.

The third panelist was Sherri North Cohen, a Holocaust claims specialist with the HCPO, which currently has 130 open art claims, some of which – like the Stern collection – include hundreds of works each. To date, her two-person department has overseen 14 settlements.

Its services are available free of charge to anyone, regardless of the value of a claim.

She said her usual method is “moral and ethical persuasion,” trying to impress upon the possessor the unjustness of the circumstances under which the work came into the hands of the Nazis, and emphasizing the personal story of the victim.

It can take years.

“It’s not easy to try to convince someone to turn over something they may have bought in good faith 20 years ago… There are often two victims in these cases,” she said.
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