Family gets Nazi-stolen art back

South Florida Sun-Sentinel 10 April 2009


BOYNTON BEACH, FL -- At 73, Peter Bloch's memories of his grandparents are faint. The Boynton Beach retiree last saw them in Germany in 1940, when he was 5 and they were about to be interned in a Nazi concentration camp.

But Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer will be indelible in Bloch's mind today during ceremonies in Sacramento, Calif., when Italian Renaissance paintings that the Nazis looted from the couple prior to World War II are returned to his family. For decades the three works have hung on the walls of the state-run Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The art is valuable, if not priceless. But, said Bloch, "I think the other aspects are more important to us than monetary value. There is great satisfaction to be able after so many years to recover a work of art taken during a terrible period of history."

In granting ownership to Bloch and eight other Oppenheimer heirs, California officials acknowledge the artworks' past. The wealthy Jewish art dealers were forced by the Nazis to liquidate their Galerie van Diemen in Berlin in 1935.

Denounced as "Jewish capitalists" by the Nazis, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer fled to France in 1933. He died in Nice, France, in June 1941. His wife was arrested in France by the Germans and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she perished in November 1943. Proceeds from the many valuable paintings in their gallery went to pay "flight taxes" and other fees levied on Jews who left Germany, according to historians.

Bloch and his parents fled Germany in 1940. He retired in 2002 as food service director at John Knox Village, a Pompano Beach retirement community.

Efforts to recover Oppenheimer treasures began about 20 years ago, Bloch said.

The family's Paris-based attorney, Eva Sterzing, struck a deal with the state of California several months ago, after San Simeon curators agreed the paintings were Oppenheimer holdings sold at a Judenauktion, a coerced auction of Jewish possessions.

The three works were acquired by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst for his 165-room, hilltop castle in 1935. "He was unaware of their history," said museum director Hoyt Fields.

In recent years museums have shown a renewed interested in returning looted art to the rightful owners, according to Erik Ledbetter, the head of international programs and ethics for the American Association of Museums

Twenty-five U.S. museums have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art in the last 10 years.

"Our museums want no looted artwork hanging on our walls," Ledbetter said.

In a statement, Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks, which runs San Simeon, said, "It isn't often that we get the chance to right such terrible wrongs. But today, we willingly and humbly do so with the greatest amount of respect and reverence for the pain and hardships endured by this family."

Under the family's agreement with the state, one of the pieces— Venus and Cupid, by a student of Venetian painter Paris Bordone — will remain at the castle so it can be used to educate visitors about the Holocaust.

Bloch said Sotheby's will auction off the other two works, one a portrait by a student of Jacopo Tintoretto, the other by a Venetian artist thought to be Giovanni Cariani.

Fields declined to speculate on what the works might sell for. He said when Hearst acquired the paintings in 1935, they were accompanied by certificates of authenticity attributing them to Tintoretto, Cariani and Bordone. But those certificates have disappeared, he said.

Sale proceeds will be divided among the heirs, including Bloch's two sisters, in New Jersey and Atlanta, and cousins in Argentina.

"My thoughts [today] will go to the horror of what happened and to those who perished, including my grandparents and a couple of uncles," Bloch said Thursday as he prepared to board a flight to California. "My parents would have been delighted to have known that some of these artworks are returned.

"I am sorry they are not alive to witness that."
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