Belgium Rejects Banker Heirs’ Claim for Kokoschka Work Sold in Nazi Era

Bloomberg 17 June 2011
By Catherine Hickley

"Portrait of Ludwig Adler" by Oskar Kokoschka. A panel appointed by the City of Ghent today rejected the heirs' request for restitution of the painting. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent via Bloomberg

A Belgian panel rejected a claim made by the heirs of Victor von Klemperer, a Jewish banker persecuted by the Nazis, for a portrait by Oskar Kokoschka that hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.

The 1914 “Portrait of the Physician Ludwig Adler” was sold by von Klemperer, once the director of Dresdner Bank AG’s branch in Dresden, Germany, in 1937 or 1938. Von Klemperer had been forced by the Nazis into retirement in 1934 and escaped to Africa with his wife in 1938. His remaining valuables were confiscated from his home after his departure.

The panel commissioned by the city of Ghent, which owns the painting, said it found no evidence that the sale was made under duress and said von Klemperer’s children had made no attempt to claim the painting before 2004. It also argued the museum bought the artwork in good faith and has legal title.

“There is no identifiable ground to restitute the painting or compensate it in whole or in part,” the panel said in its 62-page report obtained by Bloomberg News. “It cannot be established that we are dealing with a forced sale.”

Belgium is one of 44 nations that signed the 1998 non- binding Washington Principles, under which countries agreed to seek a “just and fair solution” with the heirs for artworks looted by the Nazis or lost in forced sales or sales made under duress.

Nazi Persecution

Von Klemperer bought the painting in 1931 and sold it to Herbert Kurz of Chemnitz. The Belgian report concluded that the main reason he sold it was because his wife didn’t like it, although it concedes that by the time of the 1937 or 1938 sale, von Klemperer had lost a substantial portion of his income because of Nazi persecution. Ghent acquired the painting from Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., a London dealer, in 1987.

Under German law, the assumption is that any sales of artworks by Jews in the Nazi era were made under duress, according to the heirs’ lawyer, Sabine Rudolph of Cramer von Clausbruch Steinmeier & Cramer in Dresden.

“They couldn’t have taken the picture with them to Africa,” Rudolph said by telephone from Dresden. “They would have been happy to find a buyer. This was a sale under duress at the very least.”

Von Klemperer´s New York-based grandson and one of his heirs, Victor von Klemperer, said in a 2009 interview that it is possible his grandfather was liquidating his assets to pay emigration taxes.

Kokoschka is considered one of the three great Viennese painters of his time, along with Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. A Kokoschka portrait sold for almost $3 million at Christie’s International in London in February, according to the Artnet database.

Ludwig Adler was a Viennese gynecologist. The portrait shows him in three-quarter profile, reading a book that he grasps firmly in both hands.

To read the panel's report, click here.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at
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