What Makes a Selling Art Under Pressure? A Dispute Reignites

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In 1938, Jewish department store magnate Max Emden, who had left Germany before the Nazis came to power, sold three cityscapes by 18th-century painter Bernardo Bellotto to an art buyer for Hitler.

The works, which were with Emden in Switzerland, were for the “Führermuseum” that Hitler planned for the Austrian city of Linz but never built.

During the Second World War, the paintings were stored in a salt mine in Austria. Officers of the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit, known as the Monument Men, recaptured them at the end of the war, and two of the Bellottos were returned to the German government. Third, the “Marketplace in Pirna” was sent to the Netherlands by mistake.

In 2019, Germany returned these two works to Emden’s heirs after the government’s Advisory Commission on Nazi-looted art determined that Emden was the victim of “the systematic destruction of people’s economic livelihoods by the Third Reich as an instrument of National Socialist racial policy.” he did.

But Museum of Fine Arts, HoustonEmden, who eventually owns the third Bellotto, has denied the heirs’ claims since 2007. Its director, Gary Tinterow, said Emden had voluntarily sold the painting, and after conducting a sourcing and consulting lawyers, “we decided we had conclusions. nice title.”

The divergent assessments reflect the difficulty of establishing consensus on what constitutes a “force sell.” In 2009, the Terezin Declaration, an international agreement ratified by the United States and 46 other countries, highlighted the need to find “fair and equitable” solutions to artworks looted in museum collections to works sold under duress.

Understanding market conditions and prices 80 years later can be a daunting exercise. But in some cases, it wasn’t hard to define the print. The Nazis forced some Jewish art dealers to auction off their inventory, for example, at prices well below market. Many Jewish collectors had to sell their paintings to pay the “Reich flight tax,” a tax imposed in 1931 to finance their escape from Germany and prevent capital from leaving the Weimar Republic, which the Nazis used to confiscate the property of Jews fleeing persecution.

Although Emden left Germany many years ago, much of his wealth remained there, and after the Nazis came to power, it became increasingly difficult to access him. His accounts were blocked and from 1937 his assets and real estate were confiscated and he faced financial collapse.

The sale of the three paintings to Hitler’s museum in 1938 was arranged by art dealer Anna Caspari, from whom Emden purchased the piece in 1930. The purchase price was 60,000 Swiss Francs. The Houston museum’s research report describes it as “an affordable and fair price.”

The German Advisory Commission’s report, by contrast, said the sale was “not made voluntarily, but was driven entirely by worsening economic difficulties”. He noted that Emden’s financial predicament was “willfully exploited by potential buyers” during lengthy sales negotiations, and that Hitler’s premiership soon purchased a painting “in Belotto style” – a less valuable imitation – for a higher price.

Tinterow argues that the Houston museum as a private American institution does not adhere to the same moral criteria as the German government. “European governments involved in atrocities against Jews have different standards,” he said in a phone interview. In contrast, the museum is guided by “century-old property law”.

But Robert M. Edsel, president of the Monuments Foundation, which supports the Emden heirs in their claims, said the museum’s response was legitimate and ignored the Washington Principles, an international agreement that preceded the Terezin Declaration. principles of fair play designed to compensate those who have been wronged in war.

“In 2021, have the Washington Principles been erased from the minds of at least some American museums?” asked.

New York-based lawyer David Rowland, who represents the heirs of Jewish art critic and museum director Curt Glaser, who fled Berlin, said he realized that European museums were more open to extradition claims about Glaser’s works. The family claims that the paintings were sold under pressure, even when they were sold under the same conditions.

“Some US museums are reverting to strict legal approaches to claims,” ​​Rowland said. “There is greater awareness in Europe of the moral responsibility of museums under the non-binding Washington Principles.”

Juan Carlos Emden, the Chile-based grandson of Max Emden, said the family had been trying to save the “Marketplace in Pirna” for nearly 15 years. In November 2011, a lawyer from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts told a representative of the heirs that the family threatened legal action if they “did not and did not immediately cease and desist” from contacting the museum and requested that all correspondence be sent through the museum. Lawyer.

“It was a really scary statement,” Emden said over the phone. “We didn’t get in touch again until the Monuments Men Foundation stepped in.”

A spokesperson for the museum said its staff had received “inappropriate and threatening” messages from a representative of the heirs.

Until recently, the Houston museum also questioned whether the painting in its collection was an Emden version. After the war, the Monument Men determined that the piece originally belonged to Hugo Moser, an art dealer operating in Amsterdam. (Moser had a painting with the same title attributed to Bellotto.) Thus, “The Marketplace in Pirna” was handed over to the Dutch government, which sent it to Moser in 1949. He donated it to the Houston museum in 1961.

However, the Monuments Men Foundation has recently uncovered new evidence suggesting that the museum’s version of the “Marketplace in Pirna” is that of Emden. The front of the Houston piece has an inventory number added by its 18th-century owner, which can also be seen in a photograph of Emden’s painting taken before it was sold to Emden by Caspari in 1930.

The Foundation discovered the photograph in the Witt Library in London and also found a letter from 1949 in which an official from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit realized that the painting had been sent to the Netherlands by mistake and asked the Dutch government to send it. Painting back to Germany.

“The Monument Men realized that a mistake had been made, but by then it was too late and his letter fell through the cracks in the Netherlands,” said Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation. “Had this mistake never been made, the painting would have been returned to the German government and, along with the other two, to the Emden heirs in 2019.”

Tinterow argues that when the Dutch government, a sovereign state, mistakenly returned the painting to Moser instead of Germany, it still gave Moser a good title under US law.

Part of Edsel’s problem with the Houston museum is that he doesn’t think it has done enough to follow Bellotto’s history, or enough to accept new evidence that the artifact once belonged to Emden.

Until a few weeks ago, both Emden and Moser were mentioned as previous owners in the painting’s origin section on the museum’s website. It no longer includes Emden as its previous owner, only the Dutch return to Moser.

Tinterow said that after the Memorial Foundation contacted him, he realized that the museum’s online resource information about the painting was inaccurate because it combined the origins of both Emden’s and Moser’s Bellotto paintings. He changed it himself to reduce it to “only what we know to be absolutely true”.

“It wasn’t for cheating,” he said. “This was due to my frustration with a corrupt origin that needed to be resolved.”

Tinterow now acknowledges that Houston’s version of “The Marketplace in Pirna” is most likely Emden’s, and plans to update the website’s source as soon as the museum finishes investigating the matter.

Still, he doesn’t think Emden is selling the work under pressure.

The 1938 sale was “initiated by Dr. Emden, a Swiss citizen, with the painting under his control in his villa in Switzerland, and was concluded voluntarily by him,” he said.

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