What constitutes a forced sale of art? A dispute rekindles the question.

In 1938, Jewish department store magnate Max Emden, who left Germany before the Nazis took power, sold three views of the city from 18th...


In 1938, Jewish department store magnate Max Emden, who left Germany before the Nazis took power, sold three views of the city from 18th-century painter Bernardo Bellotto to an art buyer for Hitler.

The works, which were with Emden in Switzerland, were intended for the “F├╝hrermuseum” that Hitler had planned for Linz, Austria, but never built.

During World War II, the paintings were hidden in an Austrian salt mine. Officers of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit – known as Monuments Men – recovered them at the end of the war, and two of the Bellottos were returned to the German government. The third, “Pirna Market”, was sent by mistake to the Netherlands.

In 2019, Germany returned these two works to Emden’s heirs after the Government’s Advisory Commission on Nazi Plundered Art determined that Emden was the victim of the “systematic destruction of people’s economic livelihoods. by the Third Reich as a tool of National Socialist racial policy “.

But the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who eventually came to own the third Bellotto, has rejected the claims of the Emden heirs since 2007. Its director, Gary Tinterow, argues that Emden sold the painting voluntarily and, after conducting provenance research and consulting with lawyers , “We concluded that we had good title.

The various evaluations reflect the difficulty of reaching a consensus on what constitutes a “sale under duress”. In 2009, the Terezin Declaration, an international agreement endorsed by the United States and 46 other nations, clarified that the need to find “just and equitable” solutions to works of art looted from museum collections extended to works sold under duress.

Understanding market conditions and prices 80 years after the fact can be a daunting exercise. But in some cases, defining the constraint has not been difficult. The Nazis simply forced some Jewish art dealers to auction their stocks, for example, at prices well below the market. Many Jewish collectors were also forced to sell paintings to finance their flight from Germany and to pay the “Reich theft tax,” a tax imposed in 1931 to prevent capital from leaving the Weimar Republic that the Nazis took. exploited to seize the property of Jews fleeing persecution.

Although Emden had left Germany years earlier, much of his wealth remained there, and after the Nazis took power, it became increasingly difficult for him to access it. His accounts were frozen and from 1937 his property and real estate were seized and he faced financial ruin.

The 1938 sale of the three paintings for the Hitler Museum was organized by art dealer Anna Caspari, from whom Emden had purchased the work in 1930. The purchase price was 60,000 Swiss francs. The Houston Museum research report describes this as “an appropriate and fair price.”

The German Advisory Commission report, on the other hand, said the sale “was not undertaken voluntarily but was entirely due to worsening economic difficulties”. He said Emden’s financial position had been “deliberately exploited by potential buyers” during protracted sale negotiations and noted that Hitler’s Chancellery purchased a painting “in the style of Bellotto” – a lesser imitation. valuable – for a higher price soon after.

Tinterow argues that as a private American institution, the Houston Museum is not bound by the same moral standards as the German government. “European governments that have participated in atrocities against Jews have different standards,” he said in a telephone interview. The museum, on the other hand, is guided by “centuries of property law,” he said.

But Robert M. Edsel, president of the Monuments Men Foundation, which backs the Emden Heirs in their claim, said the museum’s response is legalistic and ignores the Washington Principles, an international agreement that is a predecessor of the Declaration of Terezin, which identifies principles of fair play intended to compensate victims of war.

“In 2021, have the Washington principles disappeared from the minds of at least some American museums? Edsel asked.

David Rowland, a New York-based lawyer who represents the heirs of Curt Glaser, a Jewish art critic and museum director who fled Berlin, said he had noticed that European museums were more receptive to requests for restitution that he filed regarding works that the Glaser family maintains were sold under duress, even in cases where the paintings were sold under identical circumstances.

“Some American museums are reverting to strictly legal approaches to claims,” Rowland said. “In Europe, there is more awareness of the moral responsibility of museums under the soft Washington principles.”

Juan Carlos Emden, Chilean grandson of Max Emden, said the family had been trying to reclaim “Marketplace at Pirna” for about 15 years. He said that in November 2011, an attorney for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts wrote to a representative of the heirs, threatening legal action if the family did not “immediately stop” contacting the museum and demanded that all correspondence be sent via his lawyer.

“It was a really scary wording,” Emden said over the phone. “We didn’t get in touch again until the Monuments Men Foundation got involved.

A spokeswoman for the museum said its staff members received “inappropriate and threatening” communications from a representative of the heirs.

Until recently, the Houston Museum had also wondered if the painting in its collection was the version that belonged to Emden. After the war, the Monuments Men first identified the work as having belonged to Hugo Moser, an art dealer operating in Amsterdam. (Moser had owned a painting of the same title, attributed to Bellotto.) Thus, “Marketplace at Pirna” was delivered to the Dutch government, which sent it to Moser in 1949. He sold it to Samuel Kress, a New York collector who in turn donated it to the Houston Museum in 1961.

But the Monuments Men Foundation recently unearthed new evidence that identifies the museum’s version of “Marketplace at Pirna” as Emden’s. The front of the Houston artwork bears an inventory number, added by its owner in the 18th century, which is also visible in a photograph of Emden’s painting taken by Caspari in 1930, before she sold the painting to Emden.

The foundation discovered the photograph at the Witt Library in London and also found a letter from 1949 in which a head of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit, realizing that the painting had been wrongly sent to the Netherlands, asked the Dutch government to send the painting back to Germany.

“The Monuments Men realized that a mistake had been made, but by then it was too late and his letter fell through the cracks in the Netherlands,” said Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation. “If this mistake had never been made, the painting would have been returned to the German government and it would have been returned to the Emden heirs in 2019, along with the other two.”

Tinterow argues that when the Dutch government, a sovereign state, mistakenly returned the painting to Moser, rather than Germany, it nevertheless, under United States law, bestowed a good title on Moser.

Part of Edsel’s problem with the Houston Museum is that he doesn’t think he’s done enough to trace the history of his Bellotto, or that he’s doing enough now to recognize new evidence that suggests that the work once belonged to Emden.

Until a few weeks ago, the museum’s website listed Emden and Moser as former owners in the provenance section of the painting. It no longer includes Emden as the previous owner, just the Dutch restitution to Moser.

Tinterow said that after the Monuments Men Foundation contacted him, he realized that the museum’s online provenance information for the painting was incorrect, as it confused the provenance of Emden’s Bellotto paintings and Moser. He himself amended it to reduce it to “only what we know to be absolutely true,” he said.

“It was not intended to deceive,” he said. “This was due to my frustration with a distorted provenance that had to be sorted. “

Tinterow now accepts that the Houston version of “Marketplace at Pirna” most likely belonged to Emden and that he plans to update the website provenance as soon as the museum finishes examining the matter.

Still, he doesn’t think Emden sold the work under duress.

The 1938 sale, he said, “was initiated by Dr Emden, as a Swiss citizen, with the painting under his control in his villa in Switzerland, and entered into by him voluntarily.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: What constitutes a forced sale of art? A dispute rekindles the question.
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