Hearst Castle to give up Nazi loot
For decades, three Italian Renaissance paintings have hung on the walls of Hearst Castle without betraying their grim history.
But on Friday, state parks officials will formally acknowledge the artworks’ past, turning them over to the heirs of a Jewish couple who were forced by the Nazis to liquidate their Berlin art gallery in 1935.
At a brief ceremony in Sacramento, the paintings will be repatriated to descendants of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, who were among Germany’s premier art dealers before World War II. The transfer will be witnessed by family members from as far as Argentina, and their Paris-based attorney, who for two decades has been pressing claims on their behalf at museums in Europe and the United States.
After researching the Hearst paintings since 2007, the state agreed with attorney Eva Sterzing that they were sold at a Nazi judenauktionen -- a coerced sale aimed at stripping Jews of their assets.
“This is an opportunity to right a wrong,” state parks Director Ruth Coleman said. “It also gives us a chance to tell the story over and over, so we don’t forget our history. Every time someone tours the castle, they’ll be learning about this.”
Under the family’s agreement with the state, one of the pieces -- “Venus and Cupid,” done by a student of Venetian painter Paris Bordone -- will remain at the castle, the opulent 165-room home built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Guides will be schooled in its history and make a point of explaining it during their tours.
“I think it’s marvelous that the state will continue educating people as to what occurred,” said Peter Bloch, an Oppenheimer grandson who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. “The family very willingly agreed to that.”
The other two paintings -- a portrait by a student of Jacopo Tintoretto and one by a Venetian artist thought to be Giovanni Cariani -- will probably be sold by the family.
“There are nine heirs involved on three continents and trying to keep the paintings would be difficult,” said Bloch, a retired food services manager. He would not discuss the works’ monetary value.
No other pieces at Hearst Castle are thought to have tainted origins, museum Director Hoyt Fields said. In 2003, staff members started the laborious process of vetting the entire collection as required by the American Assn. of Museums. However, they had not yet examined the paintings when the Oppenheimer heirs made their claim.
Denounced as “Jewish capitalists” by the Nazis, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer fled to France in 1933. He died in 1941 in France. She died at Auschwitz two years later. Proceeds from the many valuable paintings in their gallery went to pay “flight taxes” and other fees levied on Jews who left Germany.
Repatriating art confiscated or looted by the Nazis has become a subject of intense interest in the museum world only in the last decade, according to Erik Ledbetter, the head of international programs and ethics for the American Assn. of Museums. When the Berlin Wall fell, previously inaccessible archives opened up. By then, descendants of Holocaust victims were a generation or two removed from the horror, and more interested than many of their parents in seeking reparations.
Twenty-five U.S. museums have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art in the last 10 years.
“There’s not a great deal of law on the subject, but the dominant view right now is that, for sales ordered by the Nazi government, the transaction is the equivalent of theft,” said Thomas R. Kline, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has done extensive work in the field.
Although documents tracing the ownership of disputed works are scattered, a surprising number still exist because of the Nazis’ penchant for record-keeping.
“The consensus seems to be that they were fascinated by creating a legal framework for their art looting,” Kline said. “If a Jew fled the country or was even taken to a camp, his property was considered abandoned and could be seized.”
Attorneys for the California State Parks Department approached the family’s claim with predictable skepticism. But they verified it after examining numerous documents, including 50-year-old West German court records in a successful claim filed by the family. They also conferred with the San Diego Museum of Art, which had settled with family members in 2004 over their claim for Peter Paul Rubens’ “Allegory of Eternity.”
“The debate soon became: Was there a solution greater for both parties than just returning the paintings?” said Bradly Torgan, a Los Angeles attorney who was general counsel for the state parks at the time.
The transfer will not leave the Hearst Castle art-poor. A legendary, voracious collector, Hearst had buyers scouting galleries all over Europe. His home at San Simeon, which was opened to the public by the state in 1959, still holds about 25,000 pieces -- a small portion of all he collected.
As for the Oppenheimers’ paintings, “we have no evidence to indicate he was anything other than an innocent purchaser,” Torgan said. “Our best guess is that the gallery that acquired them at auction called Hearst’s agent and said, ‘We’ve got some pieces Mr. Hearst might be interested in.’ ”