Sisters track art stolen by Nazis
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 finding 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 like 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 so 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 would not knowingly sell looted art and that in this case it never was in possession of the missing painting, “View of Canale Grande and Dogana,” 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 Chicago Tribune.
Art experts disagree on whether the Christie’s position is ethically sound, though none dispute 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.
Others, however, contend 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.
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.”
The Tribune learned of the case of the missing Marieschi while investigating the looted art objects of Peter Glaser, Eva Glaser’s husband, and the paper obtained court records and private documents to re-create the 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.
Heinrich “Henry” Graf and his family, including his daughters, Eva and Erika, fled Vienna on Aug. 30, 1938, leaving all their property in Austria with Schenker & Co., a storage firm.
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 other valuables and heirlooms.
Immediately after the war, Graf resumed his attempts to reclaim his property, but Schenker & Co. said 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.”
Graf’s search for the Marieschi might have ended with the letter about the Gestapo seizure of the art, if not for the 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.
Graf continued his pursuit in vain until his death in 1976 at age 84; his 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.
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 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 said no.
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,” Beddington wrote 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 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.”
Howard Reich is an arts critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.