The Spoils of War: Pictures Looted by Nazis Hang in Top Museums. A Drive to Get Them Back Is Roiling the Art World

By Plagens, Peter | Newsweek, March 30, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Spoils of War: Pictures Looted by Nazis Hang in Top Museums. A Drive to Get Them Back Is Roiling the Art World


Plagens, Peter, Newsweek


Pictures looted by Nazis hang in top museums. A drive to get them back is roiling the art world.

Nick Goodman, 52, an art director in California, inherited an old desk from his father. Inside he found documents about his father's search for art stolen by the Nazis from his father, Friedrich Gutmann, a Dutch Jewish banker killed in a concentration camp. Among the missing pieces was a Degas monotype, "Landscape With Smokestacks." "My father searched for this work for 50 years," Goodman says. "He went to his grave thinking he failed." Now Goodman has found it. It hangs in the collection of Daniel G. Searle of Chicago, who bought it for $850,000 in 1987 from a New York collector. The Art Institute of Chicago is angling to get it as a gift, but Goodman is suing to re claim the picture for his family. He's part of a new generation--often the grandchildren of Holocaust victims, who have more resources than their parents did--that is aggressively demanding the return of art presumably looted by the Nazis.

The most sensational of these claims produced an embarrassing incident at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last New Year's. The ownership of two paintings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, on loan from Vienna for a special exhibition, was disputed by the American relatives of two Holocaust victims. When MoMA insisted on sending the paintings back to Europe, the Manhattan district attorney subpoenaed the works as evidence in a possible criminal case. That legal intervention threatened havoc in the world of international art exhibitions. Would museums have to verify the provenance--the sequence of ownership--of every object they borrowed? It also led to some soul-searching on the part of major museums. In January, the Association of American Museum Directors ordered a committee to set standards for resolving such claims. And earlier this month in Austria, the Culture minister proclaimed that it's finally time to make moral decisions, not merely legal ones--opening the way for the return of more art work to the families of Nazi victims.

The magnitude of Nazi looting makes one wonder why more action hasn't been taken before. In France, it's estimated that one third of all privately held art was shipped to Germany during the war. In Austria, Jews attempting to flee with their art were prevented from exporting anything a fascist bureaucrat deemed part of the country's national heritage. And while the Nazis hated "degenerate" modern art, they looted it anyway and either sold or traded such works to unscrupulous dealers. The two pictures by Schiele, "Dead City" and "Portrait of Wally" are part of the collection of a Viennese opthalmologist, Rudolf Leopold. Their prewar Jewish owners perished in the Holocaust, but he did not acquire them until after the war. Transferred to the Austrian government in 1994, the collection is now administered by the Leopold Foundation.

Last fall, the foundation sent an exhibition of its Schieles to MoMA. Shortly before the show closed, Henry Bondi, an American relative of one of the Holocaust victims, lodged a claim for "Wally." A few days alter Rita Reif made a similar claim for "Dead City." At first, the dispute looked like a thorny civil matter, with MoMA protesting that New York state law prohibits seizure of art on loan for cultural purposes. But on Jan. 8, Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau subpoenaed the pictures. They remain in storage at MoMA. If a judge upholds the subpoena in April, the Schieles could sit in New York for up to five years while an investigation take place. "This is completely absurd," says Leopold. "Nothing was stolen."

Art objects with murky wartime histories are now in some permanent American collections. In 1946, a U.S. intelligence report said stolen art was being moved here from Europe in alarming quantities. The Seattle Art Museum has a 1928 Matisse "Odalisque" that was placed in a Bordeaux bank vault by art dealer Paul Rosenberg shortly before he escaped from France in 1940. …

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