Who owns this masterpiece?

The Times 27 January 2004
Peter Watson

A painting by El Greco has been removed from a National Gallery exhibition after a claim that it was looted by the Nazis. Our correspondent investigates a tangled trail that leads from Budapest to Crete

A masterpiece by El Greco, the 16th-century Cretan painter, which was to have formed part of a major exhibition of the artist's work opening at the National Gallery in London next month, has been withdrawn at the last moment because yesterday it became the subject of a claim that it was looted by the Nazis.

The painting, Mount Sinai, which dates from 1570-1572, is regarded as an important early work. It shows Mount Horeb, where Moses received the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

A small panel, just 41cm by 47.5cm (16in by 18.5in), it has been on show for the past few months at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, together with 70 or so other El Grecos. Though the rest of the exhibition is being transferred this week to London, Mount Sinai is being returned direct to the museum in Crete which lent the painting to the exhibition and where it is permanently on show.

The picture was the subject of an action in the Supreme Court of New York last Wednesday, when an attempt was made to stop it leaving America. That action failed, because of a US law which exempts art works temporarily imported into America from precisely this kind of action.

The claimants in the case, Joram Deutsch, a Swiss national, acting in conjunction with the heirs of the Hatvany family, from whom the painting was allegedly looted, had intended to ask the British courts to keep the painting in the UK, pending settlement. "Now that the painting has gone back directly to Crete from America," Deutsch says, "action is being brought in New York against Sotheby's, the international auction house, which sold the painting in London in 1988."

The suit claims that Sotheby's either knew, had reason to believe, or should have known, that the painting was looted, and will seek to compel the company to disclose all documentation in the transaction, which Deutsch hopes will start a paper trail leading back to the original looters. If this is successful, the way will then be open for Deutsch and the Hatvanys to sue the Historical Museum of Crete in Iraklion, where the painting is permanently on show.

Until the Second World War, Mount Sinai belonged to Ferenc Hatvany, a prominent Budapest Jew, who was the best-known collector in Hungary. Hundreds of paintings, carpets and furniture belonging to the Hatvany family were confiscated in 1944 and disappeared.

In 1991, in a sensational discovery in Nizhni Novgorod in Russia, two art historians located hoards of artworks looted by Russian forces from Berlin at the end of the Second World War.

These included some of the Hatvany paintings which, documentation showed, had been taken by German forces from Budapest and deposited in Berlin, where they had been looted a second time, by Russian forces in 1945. They were removed first to Moscow and then on to Gorky which, after perestroika, became Nizhni Novgorod.

The documents also showed that the bulk of the Hatvany Collection was looted on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, who was in Hungary in 1944 and instituted a policy of arresting Jews and then releasing them in exchange for property.

One of the Russian art historians who made these discoveries, Konstantin Akinsha, now lives in Washington and is one of the co-authors of the Guide to Provenance Research, published by the American Association of Museums, where he has a special brief to research paintings with a dubious history. He has familiarised himself with the Hatvany collection and says: "The El Greco was bought by Ferenc Hatvany in 1925 from the well-known Paris gallery, Tannhauser, and was one of several paintings (together with a Delacroix, a Courbet and a Cranach) that was deposited in a Budapest bank in 1942 in the names of the Hatvanys' gentile domestic staff."

There was a report, he says, that Hatvany repurchased Mount Sinai in 1947, but he discounts this as a deliberately misleading ploy used by looters after the war to justify what they had. The family flatly deny that the El Greco was ever repurchased.

"This painting was looted from the bank, hidden in Hungary until the 1960s and then smuggled to Vienna," Akinsha says. "It reached London in 1988 when it was auctioned, but did not sell. Later it was purchased by the A and M Kalokairinos Foundation and deposited in the Historical Museum of Crete, in Iraklion in 1991."

The three heirs of Ferenc Hatvany are all elderly women. Antoinette de Montferrand lives in Paris, Sonja Hatvany in Geneva, and a third sister, a Mrs Cardoso, in Zimbabwe. Their lawyer in Geneva confirmed that Joram Deutsch was acting on their behalf, but he has an added reason for bringing the action, which makes the status and fate of this painting even more important.

After the war, Joram's father, Hans, became a very prominent lawyer, acting for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, who succeeded in a number of spectacular compensation claims. These included a claim for the Rothschilds of 87 million Deutschmarks, and one of DM35 million for the Hatvanys themselves. However, in 1964, after the first instalment of DM17.5 million had been paid, Deutsch himself was suddenly arrested and accused of fraud by the West German Government. Deutsch had based his claim for compensation for the Hatvany artworks on the fact that they had been looted by Germans, but the German government claimed to the contrary that they had been taken by Russians.

Deutsch spent a month in solitary confinement, and was held in prison for 18 months. When his case finally came to court, the witnesses ranged against him included 80 former Nazis, many of whom, it later turned out, had taken part in looting. The prosecutor running the case was Rolf Dahlgrün, who had worked for Hermann Goering during the war, charged with storing much of the property the Nazis had seized. Despite this huge array of witnesses, all charges against Hans Deutsch were eventually dropped, and he was acquitted. However, he never received any compensation and his practice - and career - were ruined by the publicity. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

In 1991, when some of the Hatvany paintings were discovered in Russia, vindicating his argument that their pictures had been taken by Germans and not by Russians, he began a claim against the German government.

This had not come to court when Hans died in 2002, aged 96, and there were always doubts that, because many Hatvany paintings were still missing, no one could prove who had looted the rest. If the paper trail back from Sotheby's to Vienna and beyond reinforces the fact that the looting of the El Greco was not carried out by Russians, then Joram thinks it will go a long way to convincing a German court that his father was indeed unjustly treated. His claim against the government will run into millions of euros.

Edward Fagan, his lawyer, agrees, and he should know. Fagan, a New York-New Jersey attorney, is the man who forced the Swiss banks to divulge which Jewish accounts they had and which had been "dormant" since the Second World War.

Lucian Simmons, for Sotheby's, did not want to comment on any pending legal action, since the company has not heard from Deutsch or Fagan. But he said: "The El Greco is a very well-known painting. It has been widely exhibited over the past 15 years - in Madrid, Rome and Athens before New York - and has always been listed as once belonging to the Hatvanys. Other former Hatvany pictures are in public museums across the world."

The Iraklion museum could not be reached for comment, but Neil Evans, a spokesman for the National Gallery in London, in confirming that Mount Sinai would not now be on display in the forthcoming exhibition, says: "We have another painting from El Greco's Cretan period - Dormition of the Virgin. This is still used as an icon in a church on Syros. We are sad not to have the Mount Sinai. But the exhibition should still be a wonderful experience."
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