Nazi Art Theft: Pissarro's “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps”

Art Theft Central
By Mark Durney

Breaking from Art Theft Central’s traditional analyses of past, current, and future art crimes, this post provides intimate details into the restitution process for looted art.

During the Second World War, the Nazis pillaged and plundered the cultural landscape of Europe. The property of the their enemies was seized as the spoils of war. While some works of art were confiscated, other works considered “degenerate art” were left to corrupt and avaricious dealers and collectors. From 1939 to 1945, the art markets of Paris, Amsterdam, and Vienna bustled with activity as collaborationists sought to profit from the Nazis’ insatiable appetite for art. The gluttony of dealers, auction houses, museums, and collectors were fed by a constant supply of illicit art. After the War, the personal possessions and treasures belonging to those who fled, disappeared, or were killed laid strewn across the continent.

Since the late 1940s, survivors and their relatives, whose families once possessed some of the greatest manifestations of human creativity, have sought the restitution of their stolen heirlooms. This past June, Camille Pissarro’s 1903 “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps” was withdrawn from Christie’s Impressionist auction amid an inheritance dispute stemming from its recent restitution to the original owner’s granddaughter, Gisela Bermann-Fischer. For the past five months, I have had the pleasure of hearing more about the intimate details behind the restitution negotiations and familial disputes from Monika Fischer Graves, Bermann-Fischer’s first cousin and mother of the other rightful co-heir, Itai Shoffman. Fischer Graves’s account provided previously undisclosed details into the painting’s history and provenance and offers a sobering reflection on the restitution process.

The tale of the recovered Pissarro begins with Samuel Fischer, a prolific art collector and founder of the renowned German publishing house S. Fischer Verlag – which counted Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse among its most famous authors – who purchased the painting in 1907. The painting, which was one of the artist’s last works and was completed when he was confined to a wheelchair in a room overlooking the Seine, is a seminal work because it shows how Pissarro maintained his artistic abilities and aesthetic sensibilities until the end of his life. In 1933, Fischer and his wife Hedwig loaned the Pissarro and a number of other works in their fine art collection to the newly founded Kunstmuseum in Luzerne, Switzerland. This underscores how the family’s patriarch sought to share his collection with the European community and therefore enable others to celebrate in the artistic achievements of mankind. The following year, Fischer died and left his entire estate to his wife.

After the introduction of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws in 1935, Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, who was Samuel Fischer's son-in-law and was given authority to head the publishing house, relocated the business along with his family (wife Brigitte and three daughters including Gisela) to Vienna, Austria. With the rise of the Third Reich, continental Europe was engaged in a transformative period characterized by anxiety, fear, and terror. During March 1936, Hedwig twice wrote to the conservator at the Kunstmuseum asking for the loaned paintings to be “sent back with the greatest of speed and without haste,” to her home in Berlin, Grunewald, Erderner Straße 8. With the Nazis quickly advancing, it was at this time Fischer's widow Hedwig forwarded the Pissarro as well as several of the most valuable works of art to the Bermann-Fischers for safekeeping in their Vienna home. Unfortunately, following the Anschluss – Austria’s de facto annexation into Germany – the Bermann-Fischer family was forced again to relocate – this time to Stockholm, Sweden. In the rush to escape Vienna, the family left behind their possessions including those prized and valuable paintings belonging to Hedwig. Immediately, overzealous Gestapo agents descended on the estate and looted the art, which included Lovis Corinth’s “Blooming Flowers,” El Greco’s “Veil of Veronica,” a Gauguin, and the Pissarro.

In 1940, Bermann-Fischer settled his family in Greenwich, Connecticut. A year later Monika Fischer Graves and her mother (Hildegard Fischer) along with Hedwig – Samuel Fischer's widow – narrowly escaped Europe boarding a train across Russia onto the last freighter leaving Hong Kong destined for California. A few years later, while living in New York, Hedwig penned a will and a personal letter in which she left the fine art collection to her daughter Hildegard. After returning to Germany in 1950, Hedwig never redrafted this will and as a result the handwritten letter was not recognized as a will under German inheritance law when she died in 1952 (Monika Fischer Graves still possesses her late grandmother’s letter).

In the years immediately after the war, Gottfried worked on the restitution of the Fischers’ looted art collection. According to records from the Economics Division of the Office of Military Government for Germany’s (OMGUS) archives, the Pissarro was purchased by Eugen Primavesi as an agent for German art dealer Hans W. Lange of Berlin. In 1946, a Pissarro was found in Langes’s possession, but it did not match the description Gottfried provided to Herbert Leonard, Chief of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Restitution Branch. Gottfried based his description of the painting on an entry from the Dorotheum catalogue, Pissaro’s [sic] “Seine Kai” (probably Rue de Voltaire), oil, signed and dated 1902, 63x52cm. Unfortunately, the Dorotheum entry was incorrect in size, name, and date. Furthermore, Gottfried incorrectly identified the artist as “Paul Emile Pissarro,” who was Camille Pissarro’s youngest son. Although a painting by Camille Pissarro was found in Lange’s possession, it “was not identical with the one claimed,” said Leonard. Therefore, Lange was permitted to keep it. 

Eventually, Bruno Lohse, the former Nazi art dealer, who had been employed by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) during the war and had conceived of the barter system “advantageous to many” in which German art dealers including Hermann Goering exchanged Old Masters paintings for confiscated Impressionists and moderns, received from Lange the Fischer-owned painting, “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.” The confusion that prevented the immediate restitution of the Pissarro highlights the extent to which Gottfried was disconnected from the family’s artistic treasures. Although he safeguarded the painting for a brief time, it is evident that he was not familiar with the work by the Impressionist master.

Another painting, El Greco’s “Veil of Veronica,” was recovered through Gottfried’s appeal to OMGUS, and was sold by the family in 1953. The profits from this sale were divided evenly between Samuel Fischer’s two daughters. According to German Law, the precedent set here should remain for any other restituted art sold. Despite Gottfried’s relentless efforts to recover all of the family’s missing treasures, the Pissarro mysteriously never resurfaced. His daughter Gisela inherited the restitution project after her father’s death in 1995. As recounted in Christie’s lot description, Bruno Lohse, the Nazi art collector, donated the painting to his trust’s foundation Schönart Anstalt. Lohse died in March 2007. In 1984, it appeared in an exhibition, only to remain hidden until 2007 when prosecutors in Switzerland investigating an extortion complaint brought by Gisela against a Munich art dealer and art historian discovered it among a haul of paintings in a safe belonging to Schönart Anstalt. Later that year, a Lichtenstein court ordered that Schönart return the painting to Gisela. 

According to Monika Fischer Graves, there were lengthy and exclusive negotiations between her cousin, Gisela, and the Trust. Fischer Graves claims that initially Schönart wanted to give the painting back to the family for free, however they were hesitant because they questioned the validity of Gisela’s claim as the sole heiress. Schönart’s research showed that Samuel Fischer had another daughter, but they were unable to locate the next of kin, and Bermann-Fischer was not forthcoming with her cousin’s whereabouts.

In January 2008, Monika received a bizarre phone call from her cousin warning her not to sign “heirship” papers in the event that Schönart approach her. Intrigued and unaware of what had transpired between Schönart and her cousin, yet somewhat suspicious of her cousin’s behavior Monika decided to investigate. After many phone calls and exhaustive archival research, Monika and her family negotiated with Gisela in order to reestablish the precedent regarding the profits from restituted art that was set forty years previously. Recently, Monika recounted, “The on-going task of trying to negotiate lasted almost two years. Gisela was intent on sole ‘heirship’ because the painting hung in her parents’ home in Vienna; therefore, Gisela erroneously concluded that she was the rightful owner.” She continued, “Perhaps Gisela was unaware that the works of art were there only for safe-keeping.” When Hedwig's personal letter was brought forth, it was only then Gisela relented a bit; however, she nevertheless insisted on “fighting tooth and nail for a year longer.” Itai Shoffman, son of Monika and the current co-heir to the Fischer inheritance (Monika’s heir title was passed to Itai), led the effort to gain an equal share of the profits from the Pissarro legacy.

While restitution cases are often depicted as celebrations for rediscovered riches, they are, in reality, sobering reminders of the massive terror and destruction caused by the Third Reich’s cultural rape of Europe. As this case exemplifies, the controversies surrounding restituted art do not end at the auction block. Furthermore, the case of Pissarro’s “Le Quai Malaquais et I’Institut” raises many questions regarding the issues at stake surrounding art restitution. Today there exist law firms, mediators, researchers, historians, commissions, and organizations, which specialize in the field and even provide assistance in recovering looted art. The art restitution process is complex and no two cases are ever the same. The emotions, memories, and histories that surface during the process are impossible to convey to those who have not had similar experiences. Accordingly, what drives someone to subject themselves to such an extensive and emotionally wearing process? Is it to correct one of history’s greatest miscarriages of justice, or is it to restore a family’s name and legacy? Or, is it human nature to go after what one knows is rightfully theirs? Furthermore, what lessons can be learned from those who brave the restitution process?

On November 3, 2009, Camille Pissarro’s “Le Quai Malaquais et I’Institut” sold for $1,850,000 (without buyer’s premium) at Christie’s Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale. A variety of complex obligations resulted in the work’s premature sale at a time when the art market had been substantially reduced by the global recession. Accordingly, the value at-auction for the Pissarro could have been much greater had it been sold in a more robust economy.
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