Life & Culture

For sale: the art the Nazis stole

On July 4, there will be an unusual number of restituted art from the Holocaust coming up for auction


Sometimes, it’s an inscription or a label on the back or base of a work of art. Sometimes, just a mark will do.

Richard Aronowitz works in the art world but his job is more like that of a detective. As Sotheby’s European Head of Restitution, he combs through every pre-1945 lot that comes to auction for sale — be it a painting, a work on paper, a bronze sculpture or a medieval cup — looking for proof that the work can be legitimately sold.

“Sometimes, we see an alarming name, either a Jewish collector’s or an auctioneer in Berlin who sold off looted art, or a dealer who dealt with looted art, or such “red-flag” names as Dr Voss, who acquired works of art for Hitler.

“We then have to look very carefully into what happened to this particular piece before allowing it into a sale,” he tells me. Sotheby’s was the first major art house to establish a restitution department.

On July 4, there will be an unusual number of restituted art coming up for auction. One is a triptych painted by 16th-century Antwerp Master Joachim Patinir, up for sale at Sotheby’s London’s Old Masters sale. Earlier this year, the painting, estimated at £300,000 to £500,000, was restored to the heirs of Hamburg Jewish art collectors Henry and Hertha Bromberg from the French state, after eight decades.

The Brombergs, who fled Hamburg for Paris in 1938 with their children, were forced to sell off works during their flight and in their exile in order to survive. The triptych was sold under duress and was discovered by the Allies in Munich at the end of the Second World War. It was then repatriated to France with unknown pre-war ownership and it ended up in the custody of the French state among a large group of pictures known as Musées Nationaux Récupération (National Museums Recovery) items. Working from just a black-and-white photograph of the family’s former home in Hamburg, researchers for the Bromberg heirs tracked down the picture of the Crucifixion, painted on panels, to a regional museum in France.

Included in the same auction on July 4 are another two restituted paintings. On the same day in another auction there are two restituted silver nefs (drinking vessels on wheels) given back to the estate of Emma Budge (who was Jewish) by the Landesmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland.

The current volume of lots can probably be attributed to the huge resources available these days to researchers and lawyers in terms of the data available, thanks to technology. This followed the consensus among international museums and governments to redouble their efforts to list and share information, a commitment made in the Washington Principles of December 1998.

The Washington Conference, which established the eleven principles, was organised by the US Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs, Stuart E Eizenstat. He said “If these principles are properly applied, the discovery of Nazi-confiscated art will no longer be a matter of chance. Instead, there will be an organised international effort voluntary in nature but backed by a strong moral commitment to search provenance and uncover stolen art. This effort will be undertaken by governments, NGOs, museums, auctioneers and dealers.”

Finding much of the looted art in the first place was the relatively easy part after the war. Reuniting the works with their former owners was, however, a mammoth task that is still a long way from being achieved.

Towards the end of the war, locating cultural items stolen by the Nazis was carried out by an unusual unit of the Allied forces called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) — known as “The Monuments Men” — as featured in the 2014 George Clooney film.

They discovered Hitler’s treasure chamber deep in the extensive salt mines of Altaussee in the Austrian Alps, containing many of the greatest works of art in the world. Other priceless treasures were found in caves, bank vaults, bombed-out cathedrals, castles, and palaces.

The Monuments Men oversaw the retrieval, packing, safeguarding, cataloguing, and eventual repatriation of the works paintings, drawings, sculptures, furniture, weapons, coins, and libraries from all these repositories. The US forces then established central collecting points, the principal ones at Hitler’s former headquarters in Munich and in Wiesbaden.

Other collecting points were also established in German towns, such as Offenbach, where millions of Nazi-looted books, archives, manuscripts, and Torah scrolls were stored.

“The first job was to repatriate the works to the countries from which they had been removed, and then it was up to local governments to track down the individuals or museums to which the works belonged,” explains Aronowitz. “It was at this point that the process often broke down.”

The advent of the internet and digitalised data, together with access to military documentation and post-war interrogation reports, opened the gateway to amassing information. Also, when the Iron Curtain fell, archive material that was once blocked to Western researchers, became accessible.

Finally, a few governments began to produce and publish online databases of looted art works that were still being sought, or of works that were held in their regional and national museums pending restitution to their rightful owners. To date, Germany, Holland, Poland and France, among others, have published such online resources.

Even the state of Israel holds in its custody a group of art works known to have been looted during Nazism but with unknown or unclear pre-Second World War ownership. Housed in the Israel Museum, some of this material, especially objects of Jewish ceremonial usage, came from institutions and synagogues that did not survive the war.

The definition of restitution is the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner. While most understand it as the process of returning art works ransacked by a Nazi from a Jewish home, this is not always the case.

The Nazis (as well as the Red Army towards the end of the War), also pillaged the property of non-Jews, particularly from noble families and wealthy art collectors.

Indeed, among the restituted pieces in the forthcoming Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening sale is The Oyster Meal by Jacob Ochtervelt, which was discovered hanging on the wall of London’s Mansion House, residence of the Lord Mayor of London, where it had been for 30 years. 
 It was part of a collection owned by Dr Smidt van Gelder who lived in the Dutch town of Arnhem, which the allies failed to seize in Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

The magnificent Dutch Golden Age painting was looted by the Nazis from a bank vault. Over the years, it went through various hands before being bequeathed to the Corporation of London in 1987. Its identity was discovered by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which arranged its return it to Dr Smidt van Gelder’s 97-year-old daughter, Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, who remembered it well. “They stole everything. They knew every place where we had been hiding things,” she recalls in an interview on the Sotheby’s website. The painting’s estimate is £1.5-2.5m

Occasionally, what looks like an obvious red-flag name can turn out to be fine. Recently, Sotheby’s received a Van der Neer painting for sale that had been owned by prominent Dutch collector Louis Rozelaar.

Aronowitz discovered that Rozelaar had been murdered in Sobibor extermination camp on 11 June 1943, aged 60, and therefore withdrew it from sale, pending further research.

Later, he found out, however, that the painting had left for the US before the war and the consignor was none other than the widow of Rozelaar’s grandson. The painting will be sold on July 5 in the Old Masters day sale at an estimate of £120-180,000.

As for works that have already been restituted, such as the Brombergs’, which are then sold at auction, Aronowitz’s job is to finesse as far as possible the provenance information, so he can “tell the story” in the auction catalogue. “Who looted it? Was it in a forced sale? Where did the Allies discover it?”

The 48-year-old’s fascination with piecing together history stems from his own discovery, that his mother Doris was Jewish and had come to England on her own from Wuppertal, Germany as an eight-year-old on the Kindertransport in 1939.

His family story prompted him to write his debut novel, Five Amber Beads in 2006, about a provenance researcher looking into the ownership of history of works of art between 1933 and 1945.

Subsequently, he was invited to become head of the restitution department at Sotheby’s in London, looking into exactly these matters of cultural loss and plunder during Nazism.

In spite of the advance of technology and information-sharing, Aronowitz believes there are still hundreds of thousands of unclaimed pieces, lying in museum storages, private collections and beyond, as not all museums and governments have digitalised their art holdings and access to data on private collections is extremely difficult for researchers.

He says: “If institutions don’t publish what they own then no-one will know. It’s a race against time as heir groups are dying out and memories are fading.”


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