A ‘bit­ter­sweet’ res­o­lu­tion over looted art

Fam­ily’s prized paint­ing taken by the Nazis, be­ing auc­tioned by Sotheby’s

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - NINA SIEGAL

It was 1937, Vi­enna, when a Jewish cou­ple named Hein­rich and Anna Maria Graf bought a vi­brant 18th-cen­tury oil paint­ing of the Grand Canal in Venice with the Punta Della Do­gana in the back­ground. The work held pride of place in their liv­ing room, the high­light of their small but trea­sured art col­lec­tion.

One year later, Ger­many an­nexed Aus­tria, and the Grafs and their twin 6-year-old daugh­ters, Erika and Eva, had to flee the coun­try. They put their art into stor­age and left for Italy, then France — where Hein­rich was held for more than a year in an in­tern­ment camp for Jews — then Spain and Por­tu­gal and ul­ti­mately New York. By the time they set­tled in For­est Hills, Queens, it was 1942, and all their pos­ses­sions had been looted by the Nazis.

The prized paint­ing be­came the fo­cus of a 70-year re­cov­ery ef­fort by the Graf fam­ily and its heirs — and one that is now end­ing on an am­biva­lent note. Sotheby’s in Lon­don is pre­par­ing to sell the work, by artist Michele Mari­eschi, at an old masters auc­tion in July, fol­low­ing a resti­tu­tion set­tle­ment be­tween the heirs and a trust on be­half of the now-de­ceased owner, whose iden­tity has not been re­leased. The auc­tion house has es­ti­mated the paint­ing’s value at $650,000 to $905,000.

This painful and cir­cuitous his­tory re­flects how looted art­works that have been in pri­vate hands for decades are com­ing to mar­ket af­ter set­tle­ment agree­ments with the right­ful own­ers, in a way that tries to ad­dress their tainted past. Th­ese agree­ments may not re­sult in the re­turn of the paint­ings to the heirs, but the com­pro­mise does pro­vide at least a form of res­o­lu­tion and some com­pen­sa­tion to the heirs, and brings the art­works out of hid­ing.

The heirs of the Grafs were not able to re­cover the paint­ing, “La Punta Della Do­gana e San Gior­gio Mag­giore” (1739-40), be­cause the de­ceased owner and the trust de­clined to re­turn the work. In­stead, the par­ties reached an agree­ment that in­volves shar­ing the pro­ceeds of the Sotheby’s sale. No one in­volved would dis­close de­tails of the deal.

Stephen Tauber, a son-in-law of the Grafs, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view that the res­o­lu­tion was “bit­ter­sweet.” His wife, Erika, died in 2012 at 79; her sis­ter, Eva, lives in a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity in Can­ton, Mas­sachusetts.

“Our pre­ferred so­lu­tion would have been to get the paint­ing back for my par­ents-in-law dur­ing their life­time, or fail­ing that, to their heirs,” he said. “We bro­kered a com­pro­mise, which we signed. It is not re­ally sat­is­fac­tory, but it is ac­cept­able. It was the best that we could achieve. Ide­ally, it would have been re­turned in to­tal to our fam­ily. That wasn’t pos­si­ble, so we set­tled for what we could get.”

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the trust did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Like many paint­ings looted dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, “La Punta Della Do­gana e San Gior­gio Mag­giore” went through sev­eral hands af­ter the Grafs had to leave it be­hind. Their Vi­enna stor­age fa­cil­ity, Schenker, in­formed the Grafs by let­ter that the en­tire con­tents of their stor­age locker had been con­fis­cated by the Gestapo on Nov. 16, 1940, ac­cord­ing to An­drew Fletcher, head of sales for Sotheby’s old masters paint­ings de­part­ment in Lon­don.

The paint­ing’s ex­act where­abouts dur­ing the war years is un­known, but in 1952 a mi­nor art dealer, Henry James Al­fred Spiller, sold it at auc­tion to a lead­ing Lon­don old masters dealer, Ed­ward Speel­man, who was prob­a­bly un­aware of the paint­ing’s his­tory, Fletcher said. Speel­man sold it a year later to the now-dead owner.

The Graf fam­ily had been search­ing for the paint­ing since 1946, when Hein­rich Graf filed a claim for the work in Aus­tria. In 1998, the two daugh­ters, as­sisted by the Art Loss Reg­is­ter, a data­base of lost and stolen art that also pro­vides search ser­vices, posted an ad­ver­tise­ment in The Art News­pa­per seek­ing in­for­ma­tion. Charles Bed­ding­ton, an old masters paint­ing dealer who had worked as a spe­cial­ist at Christie’s, rec­og­nized the art­work, which he had seen in the home of the owner some 15 years ear­lier.

“I knew where it was,” Bed­ding­ton said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “But then I thought I’d bet­ter ask Christie’s if it was OK to re­veal the client’s name, and they said no.”

The sis­ters asked a Bri­tish judge to is­sue an in­junc­tion against Christie’s to re­lease the name of the owner; af­ter a favourable rul­ing, Christie’s dis­closed the name to the fam­ily, ac­cord­ing to Tauber. (He de­clined to share it.) The Art Loss Reg­is­ter and the Vi­enna Is­raelite Com­mu­nity then tried to reach out to the owner on be­half of the sis­ters, but to no avail: He re­fused to talk.

The owner died in 2013, Tauber said, and the paint­ing came into the hands of a trust. In 2015, the trust con­tacted Christo­pher Marinello at Art Re­cov­ery In­ter­na­tional, which spe­cial­izes in me­di­at­ing resti­tu­tion claims. That is when ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Graf heirs be­gan.

The paint­ing, though prized by the Graf fam­ily, is not widely con­sid­ered to be a ma­jor work. Jonathan Green, an owner of the Richard Green Gallery in Lon­don, which spe­cial­izes in old mas­ter paint­ings, said that Sotheby’s price es­ti­mate for the July auc­tion seems fair.

“It’s not the best Mari­eschi I’ve ever seen, not by a long shot, but it’s a fair one,” he said. “The price is right, pre­sum­ing it’s in good con­di­tion.” He placed Mari­eschi “fourth in the peck­ing or­der of 18th-cen­tury Vene­tian view paint­ings,” af­ter Canaletto, Guardi and Bel­lotto. “I’ve seen about 20 to 30 of his works at auc­tion in the last 20 years, and the ex­cep­tional ones can sell for as much as $2 mil­lion,” he added.

The Graf fam­ily and the es­tate reached the resti­tu­tion agree­ment in De­cem­ber. Tauber, 85, and his son, An­drew Tauber, 54, a lawyer in Wash­ing­ton, were able to spend an hour with the paint­ing when it was in the Paris Sotheby’s of­fices last month.

“Fi­nally, fi­nally, af­ter decades of hear­ing about this paint­ing, I was get­ting to see it with my own eyes,” An­drew Tauber said. “Know­ing that my grand­par­ents, with whom I was very close, loved this work so much, it was a very emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Our pre­ferred so­lu­tion would have been to get the paint­ing back for my par­ents-in-law dur­ing their life­time, or fail­ing that, to their heirs. STEPHEN TAUBER


An un­dated photo of Stephen Tauber, left, and his son, An­drew Tauber, with Michele Mari­eschi’s “La Punta Della Do­gana e San Gior­gio Mag­giore”. As part of a 70-year re­cov­ery ef­fort, the paint­ing will be sold by Sotheby’s fol­low­ing a resti­tu­tion set­tle­ment be­tween the heirs and a trust.

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