Court sides with MFAH in dispute over painting once sold to Hitler’s art collector – Houston Public Media
A decades-long battle over ownership of a painting once sold to Adolf Hitler’s art collector was recently resolved in favor of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
“The Market Square at Pirna” by Bernardo Bellotto has been in the museum’s collection since 1961. However, the grandchildren of Max Emden, a German Jewish art collector, claim he was forced to sell the piece to Hitler’s art collector Karl Haberstock in the 1930s.
The family argued that they should own the painting as heirs, but a federal judge’s ruling earlier this month will keep the painting at the MFAH.
The Monuments Men and Women, who work to return “cultural treasures” to their rightful owners, recovered the painting along with two others from Bellotto after World War II. Emden had sold all three to Haberstock in June 1938 for 60,000 Swiss francs.
Monuments Men Foundation President Robert Edsel, a guest on Houston Matters on Tuesday, said the The group sent the painting to the Netherlands after the Dutch government claimed in 1946 that they were looking for it.
However, there are “several versions” of a painting by Bellotto under the same name, Edsel said.
“(The Monuments Men and Women) mistakenly thought that one of these three Emden paintings was the painting the Netherlands was looking for,” Edsel told Houston Matters.
The Dutch government “returned” this painting to art dealer Hugo Moser, who claimed the painting was his, the MFAH wrote in a July 2021 statement. But Edsel said Moser was wrong, and when he realized the confusion, “fraudulently” removed the labels from the back of the painting and sold it to a collector who then donated it to the MFAH.
“They acquired it as a result of a clerical error, compounded by fraud,” Edsel told Houston Matters.
But MFAH legal counsel Thaddeus Stauber told Houston Matters that the museum is justified in owning the painting and that the sale was not made under duress.
Stauber said that when the Emden heirs’ claim came to the museum’s attention in 2007, he and Laurie Stein – a WWII-era provenance research specialist – found evidence that their ancestor had left Germany in the 1920s and settled on an island in Switzerland where he housed his art collection. Emden initiated and led the sale of “The Marketplace at Pirna” to Haberstock through a Jewish gallerist Anni Caspari, museum officials said.
While Stauber acknowledged that Emden may have felt a certain level of stress in Germany during Hitler’s reign, he claims that Emden did not face the same level of pressure in Switzerland and that was his decision to sell.
“After the war, we discovered that Mr. Emden’s son had filed claims for property lost in Germany, but made no claims for those particular works of art,” Stauber said.
U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison dismissed the lawsuit on May 2 on the grounds that the court could not interfere with the choices of other sovereign governments under the “Act of State” doctrine, referring to the role of the Dutch government in “by mistake” by returning it to Moser.
The MFAH argued that Haberstock had met Emden’s asking price of 60,000 Swiss francs, which was received in Emden’s Swiss bank account, and that no evidence of coercion was confirmed.
Emden’s heirs are permitted to appeal the US federal court’s decision or pursue other legal action in the future.
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