A missing Degas and the Nazi business of looted art
Germany refuses to help recover £3.5m painting stolen from their grandfather, says family
When Germany hosts a major conference on Nazi-looted art in Berlin this week, one person who will not be attending is Marianne Rosenberg.
Rosenberg says the German government has refused to help her family recover a painting by Edgar Degas that was stolen from her grandfather by the Nazis – despite a Hamburg dealer claiming to know where it is.
“I’m disappointed, to be honest,” Rosenberg says. “I was hopeful the German government would want to deal with this in an exemplary way. But they’ve done nothing.”
Rosenberg is pursuing the case with her sister, Elizabeth Rosenberg-Clark, and her cousin, Anne Sinclair – the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund.
Degas’s Portrait of Gabrielle Diot, believed to be worth up to £3.5m (about R62m) today, was the property of Rosenberg’s grandfather, Paul, a renowned Paris art dealer. But when Germany occupied Paris in 1940, the Jewish Rosenberg was forced to flee and his collection was seized by the Nazis.
The Impressionist portrait has been missing since then, but in 1987 Rosenberg’s mother found it listed in the catalogue of Mathias Hans, a Hamburg art dealer. In 1974, Hans had brokered the purchase by an unnamed Swiss collector who was now trying to sell it.
Hans told them he was unaware the painting was looted, but said he could not divulge the identity of the collector because it would be a breach of confidentiality.
In 2016 the family engaged the services of Art Recovery International, a London-based company of art detectives. By then, Germany had been rocked by the discovery of several Nazi-looted artworks among a collection hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt, a Munich recluse and son of a Nazi art dealer.
The Rosenbergs had successfully recovered a Matisse from Gurlitt’s collection. “The Gurlitt affair did not put Germany in a good light,” Rosenberg says. “We got the Matisse back eventually but they made it so difficult for us.”
Christopher Marianello of Art Recovery International met German government officials, but was told there was little they could do. Hans has offered to mediate, but the current owner has asked for €3m (about R48m) compensation.
“If the current holder of the painting didn’t know it was looted art, then he should look for compensation from the person who sold him the painting,” says Rosenberg.
Said Marianello: “For my clients, this is not about money. This is about a piece of their family history that was forcibly taken from them by the Nazis.”
Hans said: “I neither knew nor suspected that it was stolen art. After the Gurlitt case I had to promise my client I would protect his identity.”
This week Monika Grütters, the German culture minister, will address a conference in Berlin on the Washington Principles, a 1998 international agreement on restituting Nazi-looted art to its owners.
But Marianello says Germany is failing to live up to those principles.
The German culture ministry said: “The ministry tried to mediate between the parties, but they have not yet been able to reach an agreement.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited