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Holocaust survivor sues Germany in claim to a work in Nazi art trove

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Dismayed at how German authorities have handled a ballyhooed seizure of suspected Nazi-looted art, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor from New York City is suing them for the return of a painting he says was stolen in the late 1930s from his great uncle in Germany.

David Toren's suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., alleges that the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria have "perpetuate[d] the persecution of Nazi victims" by not expeditiously returning artworks they seized in 2012 from Cornelius Gurlitt, the elderly son of an art expert who was known for acquiring looted art for Adolf Hitler.

The father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, sold or kept for himself works that had been stolen from Jews or confiscated from museums, but rejected by the Nazis as "degenerate art" that failed to meet the racial and aesthetic ideals of the Third Reich.

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Toren is a retired intellectual property lawyer who came to the United States in 1956 after having been saved as a 14-year-old in 1939 by the Kindertransport — an effort to spirit endangered Jewish children out of Germany.

The suit says his parents and other family members were killed by the Nazis, and that the Nazis confiscated the collection of Toren's great-uncle, businessman David Friedmann, which included "Two Riders on the Beach," a canvas by the Jewish painter Max Liebermann that he's suing to recover.

"Two Riders" was among the works unveiled by German authorities last fall after it belatedly came to light that they had seized nearly 1,300 artworks from Cornelius Gurlitt in connection with an investigation into alleged tax evasion.

Toren's suit criticizes German national and Bavarian state authorities for concealing the seizure for nearly two years — from February 2012, when Gurlitt's apartment in Munich was raided, until last November, when the find was leaked to the German media.

The case has generated a great deal of criticism of Germany's handling of the art and international calls for Germany to amend property laws that are roadblocks to the restitution of Nazi-looted art, including one that makes it legal to possess stolen property if 30 years have elapsed since the theft.

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Toren's Washington, D.C.-based attorney, August Matteis Jr., said Wednesday that Toren quickly filed a claim in Germany for "Two Riders" after authorities there made their find public, and presented ample documentation that it had belonged to his family and was seized by the Nazis. He said that rather than responding to solid proof, Germany has continued to delay.

The suit notes that Germany established a task force to research the ownership of pieces in the Gurlitt seizure, when instead it should have acknowledged Toren as the painting's owner.

Officials at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., and at the German Consulate in Los Angeles could not be immediately reached for comment.

Matteis said he knew of no other lawsuits having been filed to recoup works from the Gurlitt seizure.

A website that Gurlitt recently set up to plead his case says that he's entitled to keep the works because of the 30-year limit on claims for stolen property.

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Gurlitt also contends that the tax evasion case that was the pretext for the art seizure is baseless, and notes he has not been charged with a crime. The website alludes to four claimants who have demanded the return of works, and says that "Two Riders on the Beach" is one of the pieces involved.

On the website, Gurlitt and his attorneys say that he's willing to consider "fair and equitable solutions" for the return of Nazi-looted art, but that no more than 3% of the pieces investigators seized from him fall into that category.

Matteis, the attorney representing Toren, said that legal issues in Germany are immaterial to the claim filed Wednesday, which will be heard under U.S. law, and he added that there's no intention of negotiating with Gurlitt.

"He's out of the picture, he's irrelevant to the story," Matteis said. "This is now between Germany and Mr. Toren. It's a very simple case because Germany is holding the painting, they know who the rightful owner is, and they need to give it back."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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