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Searching for Masterpieces
On the trail of stolen art and treasures, two Washingtonians help Courbets and Picassos find their way back home By Susan Baer
Comments () | Published November 1, 2009
In Tom Kline’s first art-recovery case, he helped a Greek Orthodox church in Cyprus recover Byzantine mosaics that had been stripped from its walls during wartime looting. Prints of the antiquities hang in Kline’s law office. Photograph bt Matthew Worden

Willi Korte’s kids always had a hard time explaining to classmates what their dad did for a living. The colorful German was a lawyer. A historian. A detective of sorts. If they told the whole truth—“My dad hunts for lost treasures”—other kids assumed they were telling tall tales.

Tom Kline’s kids didn’t have that trouble. Their dad was a lawyer with a pretty standard Washington résumé: Columbia University Law School, a stint at the Justice Department, private practice where he specialized in business litigation. Almost by accident, after he represented Cyprus in an effort to recover stolen antiquities, he built a reputation as one of the nation’s leading art-restitution lawyers.

“I worked in this field for ten years before I realized it was a field,” says Kline.

Korte and Kline, the sleuth and the lawyer, have worked on art-and-antiquities cases—often together—for 20 years, both of them pioneers in an area that has exploded over the past decade. Their work has set legal precedents, been documented in books, and reached from the German medieval town of Quedlinburg to the living room of a wealthy Washington arts benefactor.

Last year, Kline, with Korte’s investigative help, won a major court victory when a federal judge ruled that the sale of artwork during World War II, if coerced by the Nazis, was equivalent to a theft—a ruling that’s expected to have implications for much of the artwork and valuables that Jews were forced to sell during that time.

This year, the team won a case that will return to a museum in Stuttgart a valuable book of prints and drawings that was taken by a US Army captain after the firebombing of Germany during World War II. In writing about the Stuttgart case, an antiques journal called Kline “the most famous art recovery attorney in the United States.” For his part, Korte (pronounced kor-tay) has been called “the Indiana Jones of the art world.”

The two men have helped shine a spotlight on Washington’s role in the field of restoring works of art and valuables to their rightful owners. The cases they handle are complex and often ambiguous, usually blending history, law, emotion, and, in the end, ethics.

Sometimes, says Korte, “you’re asking someone for something in exchange for nothing—except acknowledgment of their moral obligation to return a work of art.”

Korte, 55, works out of his Silver Spring home, a brick Colonial where files and books make the dining-room table, piano, Ping-Pong table, even the treadmill unavailable for their intended uses. Unlike Kline, 62, who sometimes represents collectors or museums in responding to claims of ownership by individuals, Korte has spent his career working on behalf of people and institutions seeking lost works.

A tall, scrappy man with a maverick streak, Korte grew up in Bavaria, the son of a half-Jewish mother who had spent the war years in labor camps. After earning a law degree in Munich and working for the Bavarian Justice Ministry, he came to Washington in the early 1980s as a visiting scholar at Georgetown University.

Doing PhD research on the reconstruction of the judicial system in postwar Germany in the US zone of occupation, Korte pored over newly unclassified American military records at the National Archives and later the Federal Records Center in Suitland. “I had become the National Archives’ best customer,” Korte says. He was there six days a week from opening till closing time.

Word of Korte’s exhaustive journeys through military records reached European archivists and German officials, and they began peppering him with inquiries and assignments, including help with investigations of war crimes. After his fellowship, he made so many return trips to Washington on assignments that he eventually put down roots here, buying a house, getting married, and starting a family.

In the mid-1980s, Korte was called upon by the World Jewish Congress to help with its investigation of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim’s ties to Nazi war crimes. In the ’90s, he advised Alfonse D’Amato’s Senate Banking Committee and the World Jewish Congress on investigations of Holocaust-era assets in Swiss banks.

It was a casual inquiry by a museum curator in Berlin in the mid-’80s that landed Korte in the middle of one of the most notorious art thefts in history.

The curator asked if Korte had come across any information about the Quedlinburg treasures, jeweled religious objects and manuscripts from the 1500s and earlier that were thought to be worth a quarter of a billion dollars. They had belonged to a Lutheran cathedral in central Germany, which hid the priceless treasures in a cave to protect them during World War II. They vanished in the final days of the war.

Korte was intrigued and, through military records, discovered that the cave had been guarded by US forces when the objects disappeared. With few resources and no client or official assignment, he convinced New York Times cultural-affairs correspondent William Honan to help him investigate. Honan, who’d recently covered a case involving the recovery of Byzantine mosaics taken from Cyprus, suggested enlisting the help of the lawyer who’d handled that case and won—Tom Kline.

Unlike Korte, who knew nothing about art when he began his detective work on the $250-million Quedlinburg treasures—“I couldn’t even say I was a ferocious museum-goer,” he notes—Kline had studied art and art history at Columbia University and had a longtime interest fostered by his artist mother, whose paintings decorate his law office. Along with art, he was interested in history, particularly World War II, and had taught high-school social studies for four years after graduating from college.

The New York native had come to Washington in 1976—after law school at Columbia and a judicial clerkship—and eventually went to work as a trial lawyer at the Justice Department. He moved into private practice in the early ’80s, working for a series of firms and eventually Manatt Phelps, which represented the Republic of Cyprus.

In 1989, Kline was handed a case involving the Kanakaria mosaics, sixth-century Byzantine mosaics that had been stripped from a Greek Orthodox church in Cyprus during the looting that followed the Turkish occupation in 1974. The mosaics—depicting Christ as an adolescent, the archangel Michael, and the apostles Matthew and James—had made their way to an art dealer in Indianapolis, who bought them in Europe for about $1 million. That dealer, Peg Goldberg, was trying to sell them to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $20 million.

Kline filed suit on behalf of the Greek Orthodox church and won the return of the mosaics in a case that helped set guidelines for the acquisition of antiquities. The court ruled that the statute of limitations doesn’t begin to run as long as a claimant is diligent in trying to recover losses. In this case, Kline proved that Cyprus had been more diligent in looking for the lost mosaics than Goldberg had been in researching the provenance of the Christian antiquities or the reputation of the sellers.

The mosaics were returned to Cyprus, and three photos of them hang in Kline’s office behind his desk.

The call about the Quedlinburg treasures came soon after. Kline agreed to join the hunt with only a $200 check from Korte as a retainer and a keen interest in exploring a largely uncharted part of the law.

With Korte and reporter Honan as partners, says Kline, “we had a friendly contest to see who could find the objects first.”

One of the treasures, the Samuhel Gospels, a ninth-century illuminated manuscript of the New Testament Gospels, had started to surface on the art market. Korte and Kline visited a dealer at H.P. Kraus, a rare-book firm in New York, who was rumored to have been offered the manuscript. The dealer, knowing the manuscript was probably stolen, wanted to cooperate with the duo but couldn’t divulge private client information. He showed the two men photos of the Samuhel manuscript and one other—which looked to Kline and Korte as if they’d been taken in a bank vault—but wouldn’t tell them who had sent him the photos.

Korte made repeated visits to the firm until finally, on one trip, the dealer showed him a 1986 letter from a bank asking for an appraisal of the two manuscripts—but with the bank’s letterhead concealed. Then, in true spy-novel fashion, the dealer took an atlas down from his shelf, opened it to a map of Texas, laid a pencil under the name Whitewright, and left the room for a few minutes, according to Korte.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 11/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles