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Searching for Masterpieces
Comments () | Published November 1, 2009

Judge Bruce Selya of the US Court of Appeals made note of the significance of his ruling, writing, “A de facto confiscation of a work of art that arose out of a notorious exercise of man’s inhumanity to man now ends with the righting of that wrong through the mundane application of common law principles. The mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

Kline says most restitution cases are settled and don’t reach a courtroom. Most present-day owners are good-faith owners who don’t necessarily know the full history of a piece of art.

Three years ago, for instance, Kline represented Duncan V. Phillips, grandson of the Phillips Collection founder, in negotiating a settlement over an early Picasso still life that had been in his family since 1952 but whose provenance was being questioned.

The blue-and-rose-hued painting, a gift from Duncan C. Phillips to his wife, Marjorie, hung in the couple’s dining room from 1952 until Mrs. Phillips’s death in 1985.

After inquiries about its ownership were made by the Art Loss Register—the world’s largest database of lost and stolen art, antiquities, and collectibles—research showed that the painting had been willed to the heirs of its onetime owner, Ernst Schlesinger, a high-ranking German diplomat and art collector.

After five years of detective work across 11 countries, the Register built enough of a case that Phillips agreed to share the painting with the Schlesinger heirs. “Still Life With Portrait” was offered at auction by Christie’s, where it sold for a $700,000 sum that was split by the two parties.

Phillips was praised for his willingness to forgo any legal challenge and agree to a settlement. Sarah Jackson, research director of the Art Loss Register, said at the time: “The Phillips family has set a benchmark for other private collectors who unwittingly own works of art tainted by the Holocaust in its readiness to recognize the claim of the heirs of Ernst Schlesinger.”

Phillips said that, though the painting had been important to him and his family for more than five decades, he “would not want to benefit from it at the cost of another family’s suffering.”

Settlements also have the virtue of being creative.

Kline and Korte helped the late Washington lawyer Eric Weinmann regain temporary custody of a lost family painting for the last years of his life.

The Czech-born Weinmann and his family had fled Nazi Germany in 1938, leaving behind a small but valuable art collection that included a landscape, “Le Grand Pont,” by 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet.

Weinmann landed in Washington in the early 1940s; built a career as a businessman, lawyer, and government official; and contributed millions to the city’s cultural institutions. All the while, he and his family searched for the lost Courbet, which Weinmann’s mother had bought in the early 1930s and which he loved because of its colors.

In 2000, after Weinmann had hired Korte to help him search for the painting, a Washington friend of Weinmann’s walked into the Yale University Art Gallery and spotted “Le Grand Pont,” which was on loan to Yale from a German lawyer and art collector.

Weinmann wanted the painting back, not to sell it but to enjoy it in his home while he still could. “He had no financial interest in it whatsoever,” recalls Korte. “He just wanted to enjoy it. He had grown up with the painting, so he was the perfect eyewitness. He could remember the color of the wallpaper on the wall where the painting hung.”

But there was no direct documentation that his family had owned the painting. So in 2001 Kline helped negotiate a settlement in which both Weinmann, then 88, and the German collector agreed to relinquish ownership of the painting to Yale and the university would make a ten-year loan of the landscape to Weinmann.

The painting hung in the dining room of Weinmann’s home in Northwest DC until his death in 2007 at age 94. His widow sent Kline a photo of the Weinmanns’ dog with the words “Where’s my Courbet?” in a quote bubble—and “Le Grand Pont” hanging on the dining-room wall in the background.

Because there’s often little documentation, there are also unsubstantiated art claims. And many of the cases, especially those involving Holocaust-era property, are freighted with emotion more than a half century later. “These are the days when people think all you have to do is tell a sad Nazi story and sprinkle that on your painting,” says Korte. “That by itself doesn’t necessarily get you a victory in the courthouse. It doesn’t seem to be a good idea to go to Elizabeth Taylor and ask for the van Gogh painting she’s had for the last 40 years without having established the historical record.”

In the Taylor case, relatives of a Jewish woman who said she’d been forced to sell the van Gogh as she fled Nazi Germany, sought its return. An appeals court in 2007 said the actress could keep the painting she bought in 1963 because her ownership had been widely publicized and the claimant had waited too long to act.

Lynn Nicholas, who has served as an expert witness for Kline, says it’s important to evaluate each case individually. Not all sales of art by Jews during the Holocaust period, for instance, were forced. “Each case is totally unique, and you have to consider it in the context of exactly what was going on at the time and the situation of the people,” she says. “When people say ‘Holocaust,’ they think ‘Auschwitz,’ but it took a long time to get to that point. In the early years of the Nazi regime, people did have some freedom of action.”

Korte praises Kline for always giving him thoughtful legal assessments of the cases they’ve worked on together over the last 20 years. “Our biggest accomplishment is not the number of successful cases we’ve had but the fact that we’ve never gone out with anything where we pushed where we shouldn’t have pushed,” he says. “After a quarter century, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Kline, in turn, says Korte’s “dogged determination and emphasis on the precise historical context of any loss” has transformed the field of art restitution.

Kline says he feels lucky to have a practice with challenging legal issues, a strong moral dimension, and a fascinating cast of characters. He has crossed paths with the likes of a former antiquities curator at the Getty Museum who was indicted in Italy for trafficking in stolen artifacts and a Dutch art-smuggler-turned-informant who went into hiding after helping Scotland Yard engineer an art sting. “It’s a colorful practice,” he says.

For a social-studies teacher who became a lawyer and once dabbled in art, it’s also a perfect blend of interests. Kline’s mother gave him advice after he concluded that he wouldn’t make a very good living as an artist: “She always said to me if I couldn’t be an artist, I could always be an artistic lawyer. And that’s sort of the way it turned out.” 

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here


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