Glaser heirs reject UK spoliation ruling

The Art Newspaper 26 August 2009
By Martin Bailey

Claimed drawings will remain at the Courtauld in London

The heirs of Dr Curt Glaser, who are pursuing a Nazi-era claim against the Courtauld Gallery for eight drawings, have written to UK culture secretary Barbara Follett, to ask her to reject the recent recommendations of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.

This is the first time that a recommendation of the panel has not been accepted by one of the parties. The descendants of Glaser, former head of Berlin’s State Art Library, have criticised its ruling that eight drawings should remain at the Courtauld. Glaser, who was born Jewish but converted to Protestantism in 1914, fled Germany in 1933, after auctioning his art collection.

The Glaser claim against the Courtauld was referred to the Spoliation Advisory Panel in September 2008. It was argued that the drawings, which had been auctioned at Max Perl in Berlin on 18-19 May 1933, had been part of a forced sale. Glaser left Germany a month later, moving to Switzerland and later to the US, where he died in 1943. Six heirs (five in North America and one in Brazil) are claiming the return of the drawings.

The disputed drawings had been bought by Count Antoine Seilern at the 1933 auction and were bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute in 1978. The most important is Renoir’s Laundresses (late 1880s), and the others are by Domenico Piola, Giovanni Crosato, Giuseppe Bison (two works), Lovis Corinth, a work from the 17th-century Italian School and a work attributed to Domenico Fossati. Today they are valued at a total of £35,000.

A key piece of the evidence was a letter from Glaser to his artist friend Edvard Munch on 19 May 1933, the last day of the auction. He wrote that after the death of his first wife and falling in love again, “I have freed myself of all my possessions, so that I might start over again completely new”. Eleven days later he married Marie, and within a month or so they had left Germany. The panel felt that the letter to Munch suggested “mixed motives” behind’s Glaser’s departure, but the heirs dispute this, pointing out that he had had to flee because he was regarded as Jewish and had been dismissed from his job.

On 24 June the Spoliation Advisory Panel concluded that the claimants’ “moral case is insufficiently strong to warrant a recommendation that the drawings should be transferred to them”. Glaser had “obtained reasonable market prices at the auction”, namely 284 reichsmarks (around $1,200 at the time). The Glaser lawyer, New York-based David Rowland, disputes this, saying that “prices were depressed at the time, because other Jewish victims and intellectuals were also selling their belongings”.

It looks unlikely that the Glaser heirs will take legal action in the UK, because this would be very difficult with the statute of limitations. The Courtauld is able to display the drawings in its gallery or another UK venue (with a label noting their provenance, as recommended by the Spoliation Advisory Panel). However, it might well be risky to lend them overseas, because of the possibility that the Glaser heirs could take legal action under another jurisdiction.

The panel (whose eight earlier reports have all been accepted by both the owning institutions and claimants) has already stated that it sees no reason to review its decision. On 5 August Rowland wrote to culture secretary Barbara Follett, saying that the finding that Glaser was a Nazi victim and that the sale of his art collection was caused by Nazi persecution “mandates a finding that the artworks should be returned”. Because of the parliamentary summer recess, there has not yet been a reply.
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