Basel Rejects Bid for Munch, Chagall Art by Nazi Victim's Heirs

Bloomberg 29 February 2008
By Catherine Hickley

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The city of Basel rejected a claim by the heirs of Curt Glaser, a Jewish art collector persecuted by the Nazis, for the return of more than 100 works by artists including Edvard Munch, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.

Glaser was director of Berlin's Art Library and an art historian and critic who had Munch and Beckmann as friends. He was suspended from his job and thrown out of his apartment in April 1933, three months after the Nazis came to power. The artworks were sold at auction in May of the same year to Basel's Kunstmuseum. Glaser left Germany for Switzerland in October.

His heirs say that Glaser had no alternative but to sell the works to fund his escape and that it was therefore not a fair sale. Basel argues that the museum paid market prices. The heirs now plan to appeal to the Swiss national government, one of 44 that signed a non-binding 1998 accord on the restitution of Holocaust-era art assets known as the Washington principles.

``There are two important questions: Can it be considered as looted art, and were the prices fetched at auction appropriate?'' Michael Koechlin, the head of the city's culture department, said by telephone yesterday from Basel. ``The Kunstmuseum paid prices typical for the time and our decision was that the Washington principles do not apply in this case.''

The case highlights how museums diverge in their interpretations of the accord, particularly on the issue of whether art sold under duress from the Nazis should be treated as equivalent to looted art. In September last year, the German city of Hanover returned to Glaser's heirs a painting by Lovis Corinth that Glaser had sold at auction at about the same time.

Hanover's Choice

In a statement describing its decision to give back the Corinth painting, Hanover cited the Washington principles and a German declaration from 1999 demanding that the same rules apply to art lost as a result of Nazi persecution as to looted art. Koechlin declined to comment on Hanover's decision.

``Different museums in different countries have different ideas,'' said David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York, the restitution lawyer representing Glaser's heirs. ``We think consistent criteria are needed, even an international tribunal.''

The works Glaser sold that are now in the Basel museum's collection include a lithograph self-portrait by Munch, several etchings by Beckmann and Corinth, lithographs by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Odilon Redon, Matisse and Paul Klee and drawings by Auguste Rodin.

A Munch print sold for more than $1 million in Norway in 2006, putting it among the most expensive prints ever sold.

``We didn't know the extent of his collection,'' said Valerie Sattler, Glaser's great-niece. ``We knew that he was an art collector and he had dealings with a lot of different artists.''

Nazi Persecution

In 1933, the year Glaser left Germany, the Nazis sent 150,000 people to concentration camps, organized a boycott of Jewish businesses and banned the Social Democratic Party. In the month of the art sale, books were burned on a Berlin square by the main opera house as a protest against ``un-German'' thinking.

``The writing was on the wall,'' Rowland said. ``Glaser was among those who would have been put in a detention camp pretty quickly if he hadn't gone. The persecution caused the sale, so this is a valid restitution. It is really hard to understand this decision from Basel.''

Glaser died in New York in 1943. After World War II, his heirs filed claims for the loss of his art collection in the auctions. The German claims office awarded a small amount of compensation to his widow Maria Glaser Ash.

Sattler said she finds the Basel decision ``surprising.''

``It seems very clear that when someone loses their job and their home because of being Jewish, they are being persecuted,'' she said. ``He had more foresight than a lot of people in leaving when he did.''

To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at .
© website copyright Central Registry 2023