A ‘bittersweet’ resolution over looted art
Family’s prized painting taken by the Nazis, being auctioned by Sotheby’s
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.