This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The ongoing saga of Nazi art theft

As mentioned in my review of "Rescuing Da Vinci", the theft of European art by the Nazis continues to cause fallout decades on. There are a couple of topical examples I can mention that have been in the news.

In early January 2010 it was reported that three institutional owners of art have reached an out-of-court settlement over three Picasso paintings which came into their collections some years after were sold in the 1930s by a Jewish owner to avoid confiscation by the German state.

The original owner of the artworks Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (a nephew of the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn) sold the works in 1935 as the Nazi state was ratcheting up economic laws against the Jews. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s actions were prescient. The art dealer who bought the works off Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (himself Jewish) in turn suffered confiscation of much of his collection by the Nazis. The works which are at the centre of legal action escaped the Nazi net and were sold abroad through a series of subsequent owners.

Decades later the descendants of Mendelssohn brought a law suit against their present day owners seeking restitution. Prior to the settlement, there was a court decision by Judge Jed Rakoff favourable to the plaintiffs. The decision is precedential as it establishes that a legal remedy can be obtained where assets were lost under circumstances of duress, without needing to prove that the Nazi state stole property or ordered a sale. Under the settlement the heirs of the original owner will receive compensation, while the artworks will remain with the existing owners. The three paintings covered by the ruling include: The Absinthe Drinker (1903) owned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, Boy Leading a Horse (1905) owned by the Museum of Modern Art and Le Moulin de la Galette (1900) owned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The court case has been running for several years and in the interim a court injunction was slapped on an attempt to sell The Absinthe Drinker.

And in a second piece of recent news from December 2009, an American World War II veteran John Pistone has decided to hand in a souvenir he took when his army unit entered Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian retreat "Berchtesgaden".

Hitler had a 31 album collection of photographs of artworks (most of them stolen) which he intended to house in a massive art museum to be built in Linz. Pistone had picked up one of the leather-bound albums to prove to friends and family he had been in Hitler’s home, little realising the significance of the spoil of war as an important record of looting by the Nazi state.

Hitler’s photographic volumes contained records of works stolen from public institutions and from private collectors across Europe, with some of the works confiscated or obtained under threat before the war from German Jewish owners. Recently a friend of Pistone got in contact with Robert Edsel (author of "Rescuing Da Vinci"), who flew in to see the 3 inch 12 pound artefact and recognised its great significance. Edsel was involved in 2007 in the discovery of two similar photographic albums, owned by the family of another American soldier stationed in the Berchtesgaden area. Edsel had previous arranged for the purchase of these records and their donation to public archives.

Rather than sell his book, Pistone is giving the book to the German Government in a ceremony to be held in Washington DC. Unfortunately 11 of the 31 albums are still missing and there are hopes that this news story may inspire others to come forward with some of the companion albums.

Decades on, the book is still not completely closed on the story of the greatest art heist in history.

Related blogs: Book review of Rescuing Da Vinci

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