For nearly 60 years, a family of Viennese Holocaust survivors searched for its looted artworks, to no avail.
But now that the twin sisters carrying on the family quest have come close to locating one masterpiece, they have been blocked from attempting to recover it by the confidentiality agreements that are intrinsic to the private art business.
An appraiser hired by Christie's auction house believes he saw the painting in the home of a client, but Christie's refuses to disclose that person's identity, leaving the sisters frustrated and leading to a court battle.
While auction houses and museums have significantly stepped up their efforts to identify stolen art in recent years, this family saga shows how the business practices and legal nuances of the private art community still can make it difficult to get information on a painting with a questionable provenance.
For sisters Eva Glaser and Erika Tauber, who live in Lexington, Mass., the issue is simple: The painting was stolen, and they should be able to count on institutions such as Christie's to help them. They have filed a "John Doe" lawsuit against the anonymous holder in U.S. District Court in Boston and subpoenaed Christie's for information on the holder's identity.
"If you saw someone stealing something from your neighbor's house, wouldn't you have to say what you saw?" asked Eva Glaser, 70. "Wouldn't you want to?"
To Christie's, the issue is not as clear-cut. Its lawyers say the auction house has done all it can to help, including contacting the collector and informing him that the painting's ownership may be at issue.
Christie's lawyers also said that the auction house never would knowingly sell looted art and that in this case it never was in possession of the missing painting, an oil by the 18th Century Italian master Michele Marieschi worth close to $1 million.
"While in no way underestimating the seriousness of the claim, we are not in a position, without the consent of the owner, or an order from the court, to disclose his identity or the location of a work of art," Christie's officials said in a statement to the Tribune. "It still seems to us that a balancing of competing interests has to take place in situations such as this, and if agreement cannot be reached, a court of competent jurisdiction will have to adjudicate."
Only a side-by-side comparison of the painting and a 65-year-old photograph of the Marieschi would confirm whether it is the same work stolen from the twin sisters' family.
Art experts disagreed on whether the Christie's position was ethically sound, though none disputed the legal right of an auction house to withhold the identity of someone who may possess stolen art.
"Auction houses and dealers almost never give up that kind of information," said Robert Spiel, a Chicago security consultant who specialized in cultural theft as an FBI agent.
"Think about what it would do to the auction houses' ability to get people to come to them for appraisals and to stay in business," Spiel added. "They can't very well tell everyone about what they've seen in people's houses--unless ordered to do so by a court."
Others, however, contended that auction houses and art dealers ought to be forthcoming in helping claimants track down art that was stolen.
"It's true that when I hire anyone, I tell them that anything they learn here is strictly confidential," said Leslie Hindman, a Chicago gallery owner whose Leslie Hindman Auctioneers was acquired by Sotheby's in 1997. (Hindman also writes a weekly syndicated column for the Tribune.)
"But I believe it's in an auction house's best interests to share information in that kind of a situation," Hindman said, "because no one in business wants to have anything to do with stolen property. Or they really shouldn't want to."
Settling legal issue
Added Paul Gray, a noted Chicago art dealer, "If I thought that there was any reason to believe that locating the work would help to address some outstanding legal issues, I would share the name of the person who has the art.
"But if I believed that locating the work would make no difference, then I might not reveal the identity of the person," Gray said.
The Tribune learned of the case of the missing Marieschi while investigating the looted art objects of Peter Glaser, who is Eva Glaser's husband, and obtained court records and private documents to re-create the sequence of events surrounding the family's search for its stolen property.
In an interview, the appraiser who may have unlocked the family mystery, Charles Beddington, said the decision by Christie's to invoke confidentiality has left him powerless.
"I've done all that I can do," said Beddington, reached by telephone in London, where he runs an art gallery. He is no longer a Christie's employee but remains a freelance consultant to the auction house.
Beddington said auction houses are unlikely to volunteer information about possibly stolen art for basic business reasons.
"I have no illusions about auction houses being sensitive to a higher cause," he said.
The story of the sisters and the lost painting crosses continents and dates to the Nazi annexation of Austria.
Heinrich "Henry" Graf and his family, including his twin daughters, Eva and Erika, fled Vienna on Aug. 30, 1938, leaving all their property in Austria with Schenker & Co., a storage firm. The family spent the next three years searching for a permanent residence, traveling through Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, all the while negotiating with the Nazis for the return of the property the Grafs had been forced to leave behind.
By the time the family settled in suburban New York in 1941, the Grafs had given the Nazis thousands of dollars for the safe return of their property, family documents show. The Nazis kept the money but did not return the art, or the family's precious silver, rugs and other valuables and heirlooms.
Seized by the Nazis
Immediately after the war, Graf resumed his attempts to reclaim his property, but Schenker & Co. explained that the Nazis had seized the family's property.
"We would like to inform you that the furnishings of Mr. Heinrich Graf, engineer, were confiscated by the Secret State Police [Gestapo] on Nov. 16, 1940," a Schenker official wrote on Feb. 20, 1946. "As far as we know, the furnishings have been sold by public auction."
In addition to the Marieschi, the family's paintings included "Oil Portrait of a Man" and "Oil Portrait of a Woman," both by Umberto Veruda. The subjects of these paintings, which were commissioned by the family, were the maternal grandparents of the twins.
Henry Graf's search for the Marieschi might have ended with the letter about the Gestapo seizure of the art, if not for the remarkable fact that the gallery that sold him the paintings in December 1937 had made a professional photograph of the Marieschi, and it had survived the war.
Picking up the hunt
Graf continued his pursuit in vain until his death in 1976 at age 84; his twin daughters and their husbands picked up where he left off.
The possible identity of the current holder became known to Christie's in 1998, when Beddington, who then worked for Christie's, noticed a photograph of the Marieschi in an ad in the international edition of The Art Newspaper, a publication circulated among art professionals and aficionados.
Under the heading "Buyer Beware--Holocaust Losses," a photograph of Marieschi's "View of Canale Grande and Dogana" (circa 1740) was published, and the caption noted that the family's artworks "were seized by the Gestapo in 1940 and were probably auctioned off."
The ad had been placed by the Art Loss Register, a New York- and London-based organization that tracks stolen art and often helps Holocaust survivors locate looted cultural property.
Beddington, an acknowledged expert in Marieschi, immediately recognized the painting and believed he had seen it in the French home of a British entrepreneur in the late 1980s.
But when Beddington asked Christie's if he could be released from a confidentiality agreement with the auction house and reveal the name of the holder to the Holocaust survivors, Christie's officials told him he could not.
Letter to holder
Beddington told the family that he received the approval of Edward Dolman, the managing director of Christie's London office at the time, to write to the holder of the Marieschi. Dolman now is CEO of Christie's International. Beddington shared with the family the contents of his letter to the holder.
"I hope that you will not mind me writing to you and will understand my reason for doing so," wrote Beddington on Aug. 18, 1998.
After explaining that he believed he had seen the painting in the collector's apartment in France, Beddington continued, "Two American ladies have given the Art Loss Register convincing evidence that the picture was taken from their father by the Gestapo in 1940. . . . As far as I am aware, you have legal title to the picture and, if so, you need not feel obliged to take any action. However, in the present situation the painting might prove difficult to sell, should you ever wish to do so. The only way to resolve this would be to make some sort of agreement with the American ladies (offering them part of the proceeds might obviously be a solution)."
Beddington then met with the two sisters. He told them that because he got no response from the holder, he phoned the man but was brushed off. Beddington advised the sisters to put pressure on Christie's to divulge the holder's name, noting that Christie's is a shareholder in the Art Loss Register and promotes its efforts to help Holocaust survivors reclaim looted art.
After the sisters' attorneys, Palmer & Dodge of Boston, wrote to Christie's and asserted that the auction house "has shielded the identity of the current holder of the painting," Christie's attorneys responded that the house would not disclose the holder's name without a court order. Moreover, Christie's asserted that no such order could be made by a U.S. court.
"The information that you are seeking is not in possession of either the Boston office of Christie's, or of anyone at Christie's Inc.," wrote Jo Backer Laird, senior vice president and general counsel of the auction house, in response to the Boston subpoena issued by the sisters' attorneys.
"Such information as Christie's has is solely located in the United Kingdom," continued the letter. "Therefore, without waiving any arguments we may have as to jurisdiction, including arguments relating to the service of the subpoena, Christie's Inc.'s response to the subpoena is that we have no responsive documents or information."
The sisters estimate they have spent $50,000 on attorney fees in Boston and London, a private investigator in London and a new round of ads featuring the photograph of the Marieschi in The Art Newspaper. But they said they feel stymied by the position of Christie's.
"We are sort of trapped by the way the art world seems to work," said Erika Tauber, 70. "Apparently it's OK to keep a secret about a stolen work of art, something that was taken during the Holocaust, while the Nazis were trying to kill us."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times