Spotting Nazi-looted art priority for auction houses
Canadian Jewish News
MONTREAL – Two of the largest auction houses in the world now routinely
research the provenance of art consigned with them to ensure that it was
not confiscated during the Nazi era.
The heads of restitution at Sotheby’s and Christie’s said that, as more
and more of the hundreds of thousands works of art the Nazis looted
throughout Europe come on the market, they are increasingly acting as
intermediaries between possessors and claimants.
Lucian Simmons of Sotheby’s and Monica Dugot of Christie’s, both lawyers
by profession and based in New York, said they have had some success in
restituting spoliated property without going to court. Reaching a
settlement, however, is typically a very delicate and lengthy process,
and varies from surrender of the work to the owner and claimant agreeing
to sell it.
Simmons and Dugot were panelists at a program titled “Where Did All the
Art Go? Reclaiming Works Looted During the Nazi Period” at Concordia
University, as part of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre’s annual
education series.
“Today we are checking provenance, in the same way we check condition,
authorship and medium. It’s part of our everyday life,” Simmons said.
Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s generally keep the work until a resolution
is found.
Simmons has a team of two full-time lawyers and two art historians, as
well as consultants, working on restitution.
Besides being concerned with seeing that justice is done, Simmons said
it is “self-preservation” that drives Sotheby’s to be so scrupulous in
avoiding looted art.
“Sotheby’s is very cautious about potential legal exposure, either civil
or criminal, varying by country.” It’s also just good business, because
any slip carries the “potential for bad publicity” and, in any case,
“nobody would buy [a work] when it is tainted… We are being as
paranoid as we can for our own benefit and that of our clients.”
There’s now a database of 13,000 “sensitive” names that are red flags
for possible problems. Research includes checking the work’s
documentation as far back as possible, and clues on the back of
paintings, such as labels and customs stamps. Occasionally, the
auctioneers have gone through the Nazis’ own records. They also work
with the private Art Loss Register based in London, which monitors all
sales worldwide, and the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO),
which is part of the New York State Banking Department.
Litigation should be avoided, both panelists said.
“It can be traumatic for the claimant; there’s huge financial and
emotional costs,” said Dugot, adding that it’s also complicated because
different national jurisdictions may be involved. “Generally speaking,
the parties have been reasonable… Often the work was bought in good
One of the biggest cases Simmons has handled was the restoration of a
19th-century Eugene Delacroix painting consigned to Sotheby’s in London
31/2 years ago. It had belonged to Max Silverberg of Breslau, whose
entire major art collection was taken by the Nazis. It took three years,
but an out-of-court settlement was reached between the consignors and
the Silverberg heirs. The painting sold for more than $2 million (US) in
London five months ago.
The vast majority of the looted art is not anywhere near that valuable,
and Simmons thinks between 90 to 95 per cent of masterpieces have been
restored at least to their original countries, thanks to the effort of
the Allies after World War II.
There is always an heir, even if the family was wiped out, he said,
adding that it’s usually a national or local government.
The recent return of Emile Lecomte-Vernet’s Aimee, a Young Egyptian to
the Max Stern estate took only a few months after the consignor was
informed of its history. The party told Sotheby’s, “Please give it
The great majority of the works that were sold under duress, seized
outright or lost when the owners fled remain unclaimed or even located.
Christie’s was involved in the restoration this year of the valuable
Herbstsonne painting by Egon Schiele, which was in the confiscated
inventory of Viennese art dealer Karl Grunwald. It was discovered by
chance after a private French collector brought it into Christie’s in
Paris for evaluation.
That was a fairly easy case. The possessor had bought the painting
without knowledge of its past, but readily returned it to Grunwald’s
descendants, who are now scattered in the United States, France and
Also this year a Philips Koninck drawing that had been looted in 1942
from E.J. Otto was discovered to have been confiscated by the Nazis and
attempts were made to return it. As Otto has no known heirs, it was
decided to entrust the work to the Leo Baeck Institute, with the
understanding that if heirs are found, it will go to them.
The third panelist was Sherri North Cohen, a Holocaust claims specialist
with the HCPO, which currently has 130 open art claims, some of which –
like the Stern collection – include hundreds of works each. To date, her
two-person department has overseen 14 settlements.
Its services are available free of charge to anyone, regardless of the
value of a claim.
She said her usual method is “moral and ethical persuasion,” trying to
impress upon the possessor the unjustness of the circumstances under
which the work came into the hands of the Nazis, and emphasizing the
personal story of the victim.
It can take years.
“It’s not easy to try to convince someone to turn over something they
may have bought in good faith 20 years ago… There are often two
victims in these cases,” she said.

CzechRep to keep searching for artifacts confiscated during WW2
Prague- The Centre mapping property transfers concerning movable assets
of WW2 victims will probably work for some more years to keep searching
for confiscated artifacts and it will be funded from the Culture
Ministry, the government decided today.
Since 2001 the centre’s employees have uncovered over 300 such items in
Czech museums and galleries.
Outgoing PM Mirek Topolanek (Civic Democrats, ODS chairman) told
reporters after the cabinet meeting that the decision on the centre’s
further work was connected with a prepared bill to specify the deadline
for the return of confiscated items. Topolanek did not elaborate.
The Culture Ministry proposed that its 2007 budget as well as the draft
financial outline until 2009 be increased by a respective sum to fund
the centre mapping the wartime property transfers that operates within
the Czech Academy of Sciences (AV).
The AV’s Academic Council has approved the proposal that the centre’s
work be prolonged until 2011 on condition that the centre is not
financed from the Academy’s budget.
The centre, set up in 2001 as part of the AV’s Institute of Modern
History, deals with movable assets confiscated in 1939-1945 and their
fate after the war. It gathers data on the property, works out analyses
for the government and culture institutions and searches for particular
confiscated works of art.
The Culture Ministry closely cooperates with the centre. It operates the
Restitution-Art database of artifacts owned by the Holocaust victims,
displayed on the ministry’s website.
In the past few years the centre has still found artifacts confiscated
by the Nazis which ended up in collections of Czech museums and
galleries after the war.
Information on such items is then released on the internet where
original owners or their descendants can identify them and claim for
Czech galleries and museums often gained the artifacts in good faith as
property confiscated from Germans and they did not know about their real