STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) — Otto Nathan Deutsch, a Jewish businessman, lost his personal belongings as he fled Nazi Germany at the onset of World War II, including a painting by the German expressionist Emil Nolde.
The canvas of brightly colored flowers, thought to have been destroyed in an Allied bombing raid on Frankfurt, has belonged to a Swedish art museum since 1967, and Deutsch's heirs have been fighting for five years to get it back.
The dispute underscores the mistrust that persists 10 years after an international agreement was reached to facilitate the return of Nazi-looted art works to their rightful owners.
A process that ought to be a simple matter of natural justice has been muddied by court battles and charges by some museum officials that claims are being pushed forward by middlemen more interested in profits than in doing the right thing.
They complain that heavyweight lawyers are entering the fray, and that recovered works are being auctioned off and disappearing from public view.
The painting in Stockholm is called "Blumengarten (Utenwarf)," meaning flower garden, painted in Utenwarf, Germany. It is estimated to be worth $4 million to $6 million.
"The most convenient for me would be to give it back. But this is importantly a question of justice and ethics and the consequences for other public museums if we cave in," said Lars Nittve, director of Stockholm's Moderna Museet.
Ricardo Lorca-Deutsch, a Frankfurt man and one of four heirs behind the "Blumengarten" claim, denies it's about making big money.
"We have lost the family members, our household and so on. What we d ,dare looking for is to receive a little thing of all this back — nothing more," he said.
Nittve is critical of the heirs for hiring David Rowland, a New York-based lawyer, to press their claim. Lorca-Deutsch says there was no choice, because "without a lawyer you have no chance."
Georg Heuberger, representative of the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany, says the main problem isn't greedy lawyers, but museums whose archives and past buying practices lack transparency.
Ten years ago a survey by the organization's New York office said the Nazis looted an estimated 650,000 art works, books and religious items, and that 200,000 had not been returned to their rightful owners because of lack of documentation, the passage of time, and the absence of a central arbitration body.
Things were supposed to improve after 1998, when 44 countries including Sweden signed the Washington Principles. Though not legally binding, the accord's guidelines encouraged Holocaust victims and their heirs to come forward with claims, and called on countries to do more to identify and return works seized by the Nazis.
The Washington Principles are key to the "Blumengarten" case. The problem is that both parties apply the parts that favor their own arguments.
Nittve stresses principle No. 8, which encourages a "just and fair solution," while Rowland argues that the overriding principle is that looted art must be returned "without any conditions."
The agreement created a potentially rich market for lawyers, researchers and auction houses. "All of a sudden it became clear that it could be very serious money at stake," said Willi Korte, a U.S.-based lawyer who has been involved in several restitution claims.
He said the lawyers, operating on a contingency basis, usually take 25-35 percent of what the art work sells for, and will look for cases with a big payoff. "There is no point being an aggressive lawyer with a lousy claim of a $10,000 painting," he said.
Some looted paintings have sold for a fortune after being returned to their owners. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" fetched $38 million at a Christie's auction in New York in 2006 after Berlin's Bruecke Museum turned it over to the heirs of a shoe factory owner.
The Stockholm museum officials insist a settlement could have been reached, without Rowland's involvement, to leave "Blumengarten" at the Moderna or another museum.
"We have reason to believe that Rowland's compensation is in direct proportion to the solution that is reached," Nittve said.
Rowland declined to discuss his stake, saying it had "nothing to do with the merits of the case." He accused the museum of playing up his payoff as a pretext to hold on to the painting.
The ethics committee of the Paris-based International Council of Museums encourages mediation rather than legal action. Large commissions to lawyers tend "to swing opinion about what is driving these claims — from justice favoring those wronged to financial gain for intermediaries involved in litigating case-claims," committee chairwoman Bernice Murphy said in an e-mail.
But Jennifer Anglim Kreder, a law professor at the Northern Kentucky University, said the lawyers were essential. "If lawyers weren't able to take the case there would be no restitution at all," she said.
The Deutsch heirs say the family, scattered around the world, didn't know until 1978 that "Blumengarten" had survived the war, and even then saw little chance of getting it back.
Then, in 2003, they started pursuing the claim.
Documents proving original ownership surfaced in 2006, when the heirs' lawyer found evidence that the German government in 1962 recognized the painting was lost because of the Nazis' actions and paid the family $1,000 in restitution.
Nittve says the family had already been compensated for its loss, and asks why it took the heirs so long to file a claim.
Rowland says the family received only a fraction of the painting's real value, and that under German law, the $1,000 covered only items that had ceased to exist — not those that might later be recovered.
"Blumengarten" was supposed to follow its owner to Amsterdam. Instead it turned up in a German gallery's catalog after the war, then in a Swiss gallery where the Moderna bought it. Otto Nathan Deutsch died in Amsterdam in 1940 — apparently of natural causes, Lorca-Deutsch says — while several family members died in concentration camps.
Nittve says the Moderna paid a fair price for "Blumengarten," and therefore deserves a solution that is flexible and takes the museum's expenditure into account.
"This is no clear-cut case," he said.