Sotheby’s Provenance Disputed in Claim by Heirs for Art Lost in Nazi Era

In 2019, Sotheby’s sold the following works: Giovanni Battista TiepoloA master painter left in Austria when his Jewish gallery owner fled the Nazis in 1938. According to Sotheby’s, it was from a “notable private collection” that was formerly in Bensheim, Germany, and the only mention in the auction catalog was that it had come, as the history was unknown at the time of the sale. It was owned by a gallery Wolfgang Boehler.

However, according to court papers filed on Friday, the painting actually fell into the hands of another unrelated art dealer in Munich, Julius Boehler, who, in 1946, was declared a “looter of art” by American authorities. He said he was a person who was involved in the activity.

Three heirs to Jewish gallery owner Otto Fröhlich now say in court papers that Sotheby’s “misled the public” by attributing the painting to the wrong gallery. This facilitated the sale and had the effect of “perpetuating the very cycle of injustice and exploitation that began in 1938 and that international and domestic reparation laws and policies were designed to prevent,” heirs said. said.

Sotheby’s responded by claiming the 2019 catalog’s attribution was the result of “human error.” In a statement, the auctioneer said it conducted a new investigation after initial interviews with the heirs and found that the owner before Fröhlich had been persecuted by the Nazis and that heirs may have grounds for claims. He said he knew something.

“Sotheby’s remains committed to a fair and amicable settlement to return the work to its rightful heirs, but further investigation will be required to ascertain who the correct claimant in this case is. and evidence is needed, and current evidence supports a possible claim by Sotheby’s,” heir to Adele Fischel. ”

Mr. Fröhlich purchased the Tiepolo from Mr. Fischel in 1938. Mr. Fischel is listed in court documents as his cousin. Records kept by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum show that a woman from Vienna with the same name was deported from Austria and then murdered in the Theresienstadt camp. A representative for the Fröhlich heirs said the sale of Fischel to his cousin was a mutually beneficial deal between “honest” families.

In a petition filed in Manhattan’s Supreme Court, Fröhlich’s heirs did not say that Tiepolo was looted, but if it weren’t for the fact of Nazi persecution, the gallery owner would have left Tiepolo. He claims that he was forced to do so. Their petition asked the court to order Sotheby’s to disclose the identities of the painting’s seller and buyer so that a claim could be filed.

According to the heirs, Tiepolo’s painting “Paola Francis with Rosary, Book and Staff” was handed over to another gallery when Mr. Fröhlich fled from Vienna to England. The saint is depicted as a hooded, bearded figure whose price is estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 in a 2019 Sotheby’s catalog.

Sotheby’s list also cites a catalog raisonné of Tiepolo’s work published in 1962, and according to the heir’s petition, it was once this man, not Wolfgang Boehler, who is listed in Sotheby’s provenance. Julius Boehler of Munich has been correctly identified as the person who worked on the painting.

Wolfgang Boehler’s son, Florian, said in a telephone interview that his father never sold or owned any of Tiepolo’s paintings and that his father’s gallery is separate from other art businesses named Boehler, including a gallery in Munich. said it was irrelevant.

Julius Boehler’s name appeared several times in a 1946 report by the Art Looting Investigation Unit, a group set up by the U.S. government to investigate the looting and confiscation of art in Europe during World War II. or appear. He cited Julius Boehler as one of those involved in the looting of art, and called him a “powerful Nazi.”

Fröhlich moved to London in 1938. In this year, the Nazis made it mandatory for German and Austrian Jews to register their property and assets. Near the end of 1938, according to court papers, Fröhlich moved Tiepolo’s paintings to the Galerie St. Lucas in Vienna for safekeeping.

Documents compiled by Mondex, which is working with the Fröhlich heirs to seek its return, seek to trace the history of the painting. One of them was when Robert Herzig, owner of Gallery Sankt Lucas, sold Tiepolo and other works in 1941 to cover personal debts that Fröhlich claimed owed to his business. It indicates that you have obtained official permission.

But the petition claims the painting was sold well below market value and that Tiepolo only changed ownership as part of a “forced sale,” even if there were outstanding debts. Fröhlich’s heirs argue that had it not been for Nazi persecution, Fröhlich would not have been forced to close his gallery or leave Austria, and would have been able to pay off his debts without necessarily selling Tiepolo’s paintings.

Documents put together by Fröhlich’s heirs do not contain details about Julius Boehler’s role in disposing of the Tiepolo. However, they indicate that after the war, Fröhlich attempted to reclaim some works of art, including the painting.

Fröhlich’s heirs said they learned of Tiepolo’s whereabouts only after it was sold in 2019, according to a petition seeking the identities of the parties involved in the sale. Auction companies typically do not disclose the name of the shipper or buyer, but Sotheby’s has compelled to do so because that information is essential to future legal efforts to recover the painting. The heirs argue.

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