The heirs of a Jewish banker requested the return of a portrait by Oskar Kokoschka currently hanging in a museum in Ghent, Belgium, that they say their grandfather was forced to sell by the Nazis.
The 1914 “Portrait of the Physician Ludwig Adler” belonged to Victor von Klemperer, once the director of Dresdner Bank AG’s branch in Dresden, Germany. He was driven into retirement in 1934 and emigrated to Africa with his wife in 1938.
According to research by his heirs’ lawyer, Sabine Rudolph of Cramer von Clausbruch Steinmeier & Cramer in Dresden, he sold the painting between September 1937 and February 1938. Transactions in that period are considered a forced sale under Allied restitution laws passed after World War II, Rudolph said.
“At that time, Jews were trying to liquidate their assets under extreme pressure to pay emigration taxes,” said Von Klemperer’s grandson, also called Victor, by phone from his home near New York. “It’s possible my grandfather was doing that.”
Belgium is one of 44 governments and organizations that approved the non-binding Washington Principles, an international agreement on the restitution of looted works of art, in 1998. That accord has led to a number of high-profile claims for artworks in museums in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and the U.S.
Claims in Belgium have been fewer, said Jacques Lust, an expert in restitution at the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office in Brussels. The country did not have as rich an art- collecting and art-trading tradition as the Netherlands and France by the time World War II broke out and less was stolen, Lust said.
Only 300 looted artworks discovered by the Allies were returned to the Belgian government after the war, compared with more than 5,000 to the Netherlands, Lust said. About 90 percent of the looted works were from private collections, he said.
The country’s main museums have carried out an investigation of works acquired during and shortly after the war and plan to publish this year lists of art that may have been looted. The Kokoschka painting was not included in the investigation because the Ghent museum acquired it in the 1980s, Lust said.
Robert Hoozee, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, said he first learned of the claim for the Kokoschka portrait on Jan. 12. The work was bought from Marlborough Fine Art in London in 1988, Hoozee said by e-mail. He declined to give further details, and said the legal department of the city of Ghent will study the claim.
“I have known about this case since last week,” Joris Matthys, a legal adviser in the city of Ghent’s administration, said in a telephone interview on Jan. 23. “We are still studying it, and will make a recommendation to the city council.”
Like his grandfather, 62-year-old Victor von Klemperer worked at Dresdner Bank, where he was global head of trading in Frankfurt in the early 1990s, dealing in currencies and commodities. He is one of seven grandchildren living in Switzerland, Britain, Australia and the U.S.
His grandparents were friends of Kokoschka and owned two or three of his paintings, Von Klemperer said.
“They may have supported him by buying his paintings or he may have given it to them,” he said.
Kokoschka is considered one of the three great Viennese painters of his time, along with Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Vienna’s Belvedere held an exhibition of his early work last year. Christie’s International sold a Kokoschka oil portrait of Dr. Rudolf Blumner for almost $2 million in London in 1990.
Ludwig Adler was a Viennese gynecologist. The portrait shows him in three-quarter profile, reading a book that he grasps firmly in both hands.
The Kokoschka catalogue raisonne covering the years from 1906-1929 lists the portrait as being once owned by Victor von Klemperer, and says it was acquired by a collector named Herbert E. Kurtz in about 1938. The comprehensive list of the artist’s work states that the Adler picture is now in the Ghent museum.
“There is nothing published on the Kurtz collection,” said Rudolph, the heirs’ lawyer. “That’s where we lose the trail.”
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.