Nazi Art Trove Surprises Family Searching for 70 Years

The heirs of David Friedmann, a Jewish businessman persecuted by the Nazis, are asking German prosecutors to hand over a painting lost for 70 years that only resurfaced this week -- and only on television.

The 1901 painting “Riders on the Beach” is by Max Liebermann, a Jewish artist whose work the Nazis despised.

It was one of 1,406 artworks seized by authorities in a Munich apartment as part of a tax evasion inquiry into Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012.

The cache includes works seized by the Nazis from German museums and looted from Jewish collectors.

Liebermann’s painting was one of a handful of works that flashed across the screen at a televised news conference to announce the haul this week -- 18 months after it was discovered.

“I saw it on TV and thought, ‘I recognize that,’” said Lothar Fremy at Rosbach & Fremy in Berlin, the heirs’ lawyer. “We’ve been looking for this picture for years. We registered our claim in Augsburg straight away.”

Friedmann was a wealthy Jewish businessman living in the then-German city of Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland. His art collection included paintings by Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro and Raphael.

Nazi Estimate

He died in 1942 of natural causes. His wife and daughter were both killed by the Nazis. The fate of his collection is not known, though the Nazi authorities listed its contents in 1939, estimating the value of the Liebermann painting to a foreign buyer at 10,000 to 15,000 Reichsmarks.

Liebermann’s catalogue raisonne, the register of ownership of the artist’s work, lists Hildebrand Gurlitt, the father of the tax evasion suspect Cornelius Gurlitt, as the next owner after Friedmann.

Hildebrand Gurlitt was a dealer who sold art on behalf of the Nazis to raise hard currency.

Documents show Gurlitt lied in describing to the Allied troops investigating his collection after World War II about how he came to possess the Liebermann painting, Fremy said. Gurlitt claimed it had been in his collection since before 1933.

Fremy said it’s possible the Nazi authorities passed the pictures they didn’t want to Gurlitt to sell.

“Perhaps he couldn’t sell them all, perhaps he wanted to keep this painting,” Fremy said by phone. “I think there may be other things belonging to Friedmann in the Gurlitt hoard.”

Petition, Protests

Though the family had registered the Liebermann picture on the German government’s website, no one contacted them in the 18 months since the discovery of the stash.

The U.S. government is calling on Germany to release a full list of the recovered paintings, an official who asked not to be identified said today. An Internet petition opened yesterday called for immediate publication of all works in the haul -- which the prosecutors have so far refused to do.

The Bavarian authorities have “a responsibility to act with total transparency and make available all information that they have about these works of art,” said Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe in London.

Whether the nephews will ever recover the picture is uncertain.

Under German law, the statute of limitations on theft is 30 years, unless a claimant can prove an item was purchased in bad faith. Gurlitt is a private owner and if prosecutors fail to find a case against him, they may have to return their art haul.

“It is possible that our clients will go empty-handed after all this,” Fremy said.

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