A Brush With Stolen Art

A Brush With Stolen Art

In pressing ahead this week with its demand that the French government release all 2,058 paintings looted by the Nazis, the World Jewish Congress provided details on the theft of one of those paintings — information it gleaned from the National Archives in Washington.

“Why is it that we were able to get this information in two days and for 53 years the French museums have refused to release the curator’s files?” asked Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress. “Those files tell you everything about a work of art — its provenance, any marks it has on its back, everything known about it.”

He said he hoped the information obtained about Paul Cezanne’s 19th century painting “The Bathers,” which is now in the Louvre, would help trace the French family from whom it was stolen. Steinberg hoped, too, that it would convince the French government to “release these paintings and return them to their rightful owners or for the benefit of Holocaust survivors if they are heirless.”

“They don’t belong to French museums,” he said, “and it is inconceivable that they should enrich themselves from Nazi looting.”A French government spokesman last week rejected the WJC’s request.

This development came as city Comptroller Alan Hevesi announced that he had put Deutsche Bank on notice that he would oppose its planned $10.2 billion merger with Bankers Trust Corp. until it settled billions of dollars in Holocaust-era claims. Survivors and their heirs allege that Deutsche Bank holds illegally seized gold and other assets of Jews murdered in the Holocaust and that it used Jewish slave labor during World War II.

Although he does not have any veto over the deal, Hevesi oversees the city’s pension fund, which owns 650,000 shares of Deutsche Bank stock. In addition, his office has a variety of financial relations with Bankers Trust and Hevesi plays a key role in deciding which banks manage the city’s pension funds and underwrite its debt offerings and letters of credit. Both Deutsche Bank and Bankers Trust are reportedly involved in these transactions.

Neither Deutsche Bank nor Bankers Trust would comment on Hevesi’s actions. But Deutsche Bank said it has been involved in “lengthy and constructive” talks with the World Jewish Congress regarding the survivors’ claims.

A representative of the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Rabbi Israel Singer, is scheduled to hold talks Sunday in Germany with the German government and German industrialists, reportedly including representatives of Deutsche Bank.Steinberg said that among the issues to be discussed would be slave labor, dormant Nazi-era accounts and Jewish property seized by the Nazis and given to other Germans. Deutsche Bank’s president, Rolf Breuer, has said that the bank was forced by the Nazis to give them all the Jewish assets it held.

Meanwhile, lawyers for survivors reportedly plan to add Chase Manhattan to the list of French and British banks being sued for actions against their Jewish depositors during WWII. The lawyers contend that Chase Manhattan froze the accounts of its Jewish clients even before being asked to do so by the Nazis. Chase has said it is investigating those claims and that a preliminary investigation revealed that fewer than 100 accounts were at issue.

In another development, heirs of a Jewish art collector have sued the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris after it rejected their claim that it is holding their Nazi-looted painting. The suit, the first of its kind, was filed by heirs of Alphonse Kann and involves the Georges Braque painting “The Guitar Player,” which the heirs claim the center bought in 1981 knowing of its past. A spokesman for the center told the Associated Press the painting was bought “in good faith.”

The history of the looting of the Cezanne painting was spelled out by a document in the National Archives that showed on April 7, 1941, a German art dealer named Gustav Rochlitz obtained the painting, according to Steinberg.

He said Rochlitz obtained “The Bathers” and a painting by Renoir by trading it for two paintings by the seventh century Dutch painter Van Os. The trade, according to the documents, was with Field Marshal Herman Goering, Hitler’s top aide.

The Cezanne painting had been stolen by a Nazi unit headed by Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s Nazi party ideologue, known as the Rosenberg Task Force. The unit was described in an August 1945 American document as the formal Nazi looting organization in France. The document said the task force was responsible for stealing artworks primarily from Kann, Paul Rosenberg and Georges Bernheim.

After the war, the Allies arrested Rochlitz and he was found to have 22 stolen paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries, among them “The Bathers.” A document in the National Archives said that on the back of the painting was the name Hessel, which apparently referred to the famous Jewish art gallery owner Josse Hessel, from whom it was apparently stolen, according to Steinberg.

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