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Searching for Masterpieces
Comments () | Published November 1, 2009
German historian and researcher Willi Korte, whose Silver Spring home is cluttered with documents, has been called the Indiana Jones of the art world. Photograh by Matthew Worden

Whitewright was a small town—so small that it had only one bank. Korte flew there, went to the First National Bank of Whitewright, and asked the president about the treasures. They had a “cat-and-mouse conversation,” Korte recalls. But the next day, the bank president called Korte to say that any further conversations would be handled by a Dallas law firm.

“I knew my visit had obviously borne some fruit,” Korte says. The Quedlinburg treasures were in the bank’s vault.

By calling antiques appraisers in the Dallas area, Honan, who later wrote a book about the case called Treasure Hunt, tracked down the family who held the treasures—heirs and siblings of an art-savvy American Army officer, Joe T. Meador, who had taken them from their wartime hiding place and mailed them home to Whitewright.

Korte, who’d been bankrolling his own detective work, finally got the German foreign ministry interested in his discovery, and eventually the German interior ministry and cultural foundation supported the effort to recover the priceless objects.

After much litigation—Meador’s family reneged on an early agreement and sent some of the treasures to Switzerland—Kline helped the parties reach a settlement. The family was reportedly paid about $1 million by the German government for the return of the treasures to the German church where they belonged.

Honan, Korte, and Kline were awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Honan’s stories about the treasures made the front page of the New York Times. And Korte and Kline—and their accomplishment—earned notice in the art world. “All of a sudden people started talking about art restitution,” says Korte.

He and Kline were hooked.

Historically, art transactions were done with very little, if any, probing into the ownership history of the art. The art world, in fact, resisted the notion that buyers of art should have to conduct the kind of diligence that would be required for a house or a car. “It was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ not very long ago,” says Kline. Such lax standards have permitted stolen objects to circulate freely, he says.

In 1995, an award-winning book, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Washington author Lynn Nicholas, stirred interest in stolen treasures and focused attention on the art and objects—estimated at 650,000 pieces—plundered by the Nazis. By the late ’90s, with the opening of Eastern Europe and the advent of the Internet, more and more Holocaust survivors and their heirs were trying to recover lost possessions—and museums, art dealers, and auction houses were having to respond.

Washington has been a chief engine of the art-recovery movement, if only because the National Archives holds about 15 million pages on looted assets and restitution, probably the largest collection of wartime records in the world.

In 1998, the State Department hosted a conference in which 44 nations agreed to a set of guidelines—the so-called Washington Principles—for the return of artwork looted during the Nazi era. A second conference to assess progress was held this summer in Prague, with the US delegation led, as it was 11 years ago, by Washington lawyer Stuart Eizenstat, a former ambassador and government official who has been a leader in Holocaust-era restitution.

In the late 1990s, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums, both with offices here, put out guidelines for addressing looted art.

Kline says that ten years later, art-recovery claims are still subject to a patchwork of laws and procedures. But the major museums and auction houses have become more responsible about researching the history of works they possess, acquire, or handle, he says. The National Gallery of Art, for instance, has an in-house provenance researcher, as do Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

The National Gallery’s provenance researcher, Nancy Yeide, is one of the leaders in the field and author of a new book, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection, about the Nazi second-in-command’s art collecting.

In 2000, Yeide’s research confirmed that one of the National Gallery’s paintings, “Still Life With Fruit and Game” by 17th-century Flemish painter Frans Snyders, was likely to have been confiscated by the Nazis from a French Jewish family and traded by Goering. The museum eventually returned the painting to the family.

Since then, says Yeide, there’s been a significant increase in the availability of public records and new resources, many of them online and digitized. “We all know so much more than we did ten years ago,” she says.

Several high-profile cases, such as the fight over five paintings by Austrian master Gustav Klimt, have helped shine a spotlight on the issue. In that 2006 case, which included a decade of litigation and a ruling by the US Supreme Court, the government of Austria was forced to return five Nazi-looted Klimts to the heirs of their original owner. The paintings—including one bought by cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder for $135 million, the biggest reported sum ever paid for a painting—fetched more than $300 million when subsequently sold.

And Kline has helped educate the museum world about the risks associated with acquiring objects without sufficient research. Ten years ago, he started teaching a graduate seminar on recovering cultural property in George Washington University’s museum-studies program.

“The class was unique,” says Ildiko P. DeAngelis, a former director of the GW museum-studies program who developed the course with Kline and taught it with him for a time. “He would represent the perspective of the claimants for the return of stolen or looted objects, and I would take on the role of museums trying to safeguard their collections and acquire new objects. I think our graduate students learned more about these issues than 95 percent of experienced professionals working in museums today.”

The first Holocaust-related case Kline and Korte worked on together turned out to be one of their most contentious. The 1996 case of Goodman v. Searle—referred to Kline by author Lynn Nicholas—centered on the ownership of a Degas monotype, “Landscape With Smokestacks.”

Two Los Angeles brothers, Nick and Simon Goodman, were trying to recover the print, claiming that family records and photos showed it had belonged to their grandfather, Friedrich Gutmann, a Dutch banker killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

Kline suggested that the Goodmans hire Korte to help them find the work. Korte, knowing that the Germans considered Impressionist works degenerate and often sold them, suspected that the Degas was probably in America. He was right. Their search, which included library visits to flip through museum and auction catalogs, led to the private collection of Daniel Searle, a Chicago pharmaceutical tycoon on the board of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Degas sometimes hung.

The Goodmans wrote to Searle asking for the return of the monotype, but the businessman insisted it was rightfully his because he had bought it in 1987 for $850,000 from an art dealer in New York.

The Goodmans filed suit, and a judge decided that the case should go to trial. Says Kline: “It’s really the first Holocaust case of the modern era in which a court said there’s a valid claim here that can go forward to trial.”

As the parties prepared, they agreed to a compromise—called a “Solomonic” settlement—in which each side received 50-percent ownership of the Degas. Searle donated his half interest to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the museum agreed to buy the remaining half interest from the Goodmans. Now a plaque next to “Landscape With Smokestacks” at the Art Institute identifies it as a purchase from the collection of Friedrich and Louise Gutmann and a gift of Daniel C. Searle.

In another Holocaust-related case that Kline and Korte worked on, a judge ruled last November that a forced sale of art—in this case, one of the roughly 400 works of art that belonged to Düsseldorf art dealer Max Stern—was equivalent to a theft.

In 1937, Stern had been forced to liquidate his gallery by the Nazis, who didn’t allow Jews to operate businesses. Stern fled Germany, and his assets were frozen by the Nazis. He eventually settled in Canada, where he and his wife ran a gallery and hunted for his lost works of art. He found only a few pieces, and since his death in 1987, his heirs and beneficiaries have continued the search with help from the Art Loss Register in London, the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York, and Korte and Kline.

The recent legal fight was over a 19th-century painting, “Girl From the Sabine Mountains” by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The painting hung in the dining room of Maria-Luise Bissonnette, an elderly German-American baroness who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. Bissonnette had inherited the painting from her mother and stepfather, who had bought it in 1937 at an auction house in Cologne. The baroness was trying to sell it in 2003 when she learned of its history as part of the Stern collection. She refused to return it to the estate, arguing that there was no proof Max Stern’s sale of the painting had been forced.

After years of negotiations and legal wrangling, a judge told Bissonnette to turn the painting over to the Stern estate, a ruling that was upheld last year by an appeals panel. The courts said that because the forced sale at auction was equivalent to theft, the title couldn’t transfer to anyone who bought the painting.

“It sounds like an arcane rule of property law,” says Eden Burgess, a lawyer who works with Kline on many art cases at the Andrews Kurth law firm, “but considering the number of forced sales at Nazi-approved auction houses, it was a critically important decision.” 

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