USA, it's battle around a Bernardo Bellotto painting sold for Hitler in 1938

It's a clash between the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, USA, and the heirs of Max Emden, a collector who sold a Bellotto work for Hitler's museum in 1938: according to the heirs, the sale was forced, but the museum claims the exact opposite. And it does not want to return the painting.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston continues to refuse to return a painting sold by a Jewish businessman at the time of Nazi Germany: the work in question is Pirna Market by Bernardo Bellotto (Venice, 1721 - Warsaw, 1780), painted around 1764 during the Venetian painter’s stay in Saxony. The painting was sold in 1938 by a business tycoon, Max Emden, to a merchant, Karl Haberstock, who negotiated the sale on behalf of Adolf Hitler: Bellotto’s work (which Emden sold to the broker along with two other paintings by the same author) was intended for the Führermuseum that the Nazi leader wanted to have built in Linz, Austria, but which never saw the light of day.

During World War II, the three paintings were hidden in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria and, at the end of the conflict, the “Monuments Men” of the Allied Forces recovered them by returning two to the German government (which in turn returned them in 2019 to Emden’s heirs), while the Pirna Market was sent by mistake to the Netherlands, and finally, through some steps, was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which, however, as the New York Times reports, since 2007 has systematically refused to comply with the Emden family’s requests. According to the institute’s director, Gary Tinterow, Emden allegedly sold the paintings voluntarily, and therefore the museum, after researching the provenance and consulting its attorneys, concluded that it “had valid titles” to keep the work.

The Emden heirs’ version

The version of the Emden heirs, on the other hand, is different: according to them, the tycoon was in fact forced to sell Bellotto’s works, and consequently, given the forced nature of the sale, the museum would be obliged to compensate the family. Indeed, it often happened that the Nazis forced, under threats, Jewish dealers and collectors to surrender their works, at prices largely below market prices. Still others, though not threatened, sold their works to pay their way out of Germany, which also involved a tax, the Reichsfluchtsteuer, established in 1931, enforced since the time of the Weimar Republic to prevent capital flight abroad (and used by the Nazis to secure Jewish capital).

Emden’s heirs are backed by the Monuments Men Foundation, which published a dossier in June to show that the sale of the Pirna Market took place under less than idyllic circumstances. Bernardo Bellotto’s painting, according to the foundation’s reconstruction, was purchased in the 18th century by banker Gottfried Winckler, directly from the artist: Winckler assigned it inventory number 1025. In 1930 the same painting appears in the gallery of German dealer Anna Caspari in Munich: she is the one who sold the work to Max Emden. by 1930. In June 1938, Karl Haberstock buys (in the Monuments Men Foundation’s file, the verb is in quotation marks) the Pirna Market along with two other Bellotto paintings that belonged to Emden, and in turn immediately sells them to the Reichskanzlei, the Reich Chancellery. By August 1940, the Pirna Market is included in the “Linz Albums,” the lists of works destined for the Führermuseum, with the number F-35. In the summer of 1945, the painting was recovered, as mentioned, in the Altaussee mine, and, on July 15, the work arrived at the collection center in Munich. On April 15, 1946, the work, from Munich, is sent to Holland by mistake: in fact, a request arrives at the Munich collection center from a dealer, Maria Almas-Dietrich, who had purchased a version of the Pirna Market from a German Jewish collector, Hugo Moser. The work was therefore sent to Holland, and it was not until 1949 that the mistake was realized: Stefan Munsing, director of the collection center in Munich, therefore wrote to the Dutch authorities to ask for the work’s return, which, however, did not happen, and in 1952 Moser, who in the meantime had regained possession of the Pirna Market (although not of the version that was his property) sold the work to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which in turn, in 1961, gave it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

According to the Monuments Men Foundation, the proof that the Houston painting is Emden’s is the inventory number 1025 (that of the first possessor) affixed to the lower right corner, which allows the work’s history to be traced. The work on the documents performed by the foundation is important because, according to the foundation itself, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston has always stated that “there is no physical evidence linking the Museum of Fine Arts work to Emden, the Reichskanzlei or Linz.” Thus states Anna Bottinelli, president of the Monuments Men Foundation, “Thanks to the evidence we have recently uncovered, we believe that the Museum now has an urgent duty to Emden’s heirs. We urge the Museum to work with the Foundation to promptly return Bellotto’s painting to its rightful heirs.”

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s version

However, the museum is appealing to a few clues, summarized in a statement last July 21, updated August 6. First, the works were in Switzerland, and before the 1938 sale they were sent first to London and then to Berlin, then back to Switzerland via London, “in order to show them to potential buyers in these cities.” In short, according to the museum Emden wanted to sell the works, and this documented activity of moving and shipping would prove it. Moreover, the museum points out, the price Emden asked Haberstock for the three paintings (60,000 Swiss francs) was not discussed by the dealer. Again, according to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, they were returned to the German government after the war because the Allies also thought the sale was voluntary. Finally, as a last piece of evidence, the U.S. institute cites the attitude of the collector’s son, Hans-Herich Emden, who, despite having had the opportunity to do so, made no claim on Bellotto’s works, despite having tried (successfully) to obtain the return of other family possessions that were in Germany.

“This decision of voluntary sale,” the museum states, “was reached after a careful analysis of the historical context and documentation, including multiple factors: Emden, as a Swiss citizen and resident prior to World War II, and whose Bellotto paintings were with him in his Swiss villa, initiated the transaction through a broker of his choice; succeeded in shipping the paintings throughout Europe until he found a buyer willing to accept his price; and received full payment of the asking price in his own currency, the Swiss franc. Consistent with this determination, Emden’s heirs did not seek restitution or compensation for the Bellottos from the German government after the war, despite claiming other property that was in Germany.”

“In 2019,” the museum continues, “Germany awarded the Emden family the two formerly Emden Bellottos in its possession. The Museum notes the German government’s decision, but argues that this recent decision does not alter the facts or the voluntary nature of Emden’s 1938 sale of the Bellottos.” In addition, the Aug. 6 update states, “The Museum refutes the identification of the painting as an object of forced sale. The decision is based on the Museum’s previous research and independent, unbiased research commissioned by Laurie Stein, president of L. Stein Art Research, LLC based in Berlin and Chicago. A recognized authority in the field of provenance research and a member of the board of the German Lost Art Foundation, Stein in 2020 was awarded Germany’s only federal decoration, the Cross of Merit, for her decades of work in researching, identifying and restoring artworks confiscated at the time of World War II.” Finally, the museum credits itself with leading to the discovery of the links between the Pirna Market and Gottfried Winckler, and says that while the Monuments Men Foundation’s dossier is helpful in understanding the history of the painting, it does not alter the legitimacy of the 1938 sale.

“The Museum maintains, as it did in 2007 and 2011,” says Director Tinterow, "that the 1938 sale of Bellotto’s Pirna Market to the German government was initiated by Dr. Emden, as a Swiss citizen, with the painting under his control in his villa in Switzerland, and concluded by him voluntarily. There have been doubts in the past as to whether the Houston version of the Pirna Market was the one that belonged to Emden. This is due to the existence of multiple versions, many of which were brought to the Munich collection center after World War II, including two owned by Hitler. We are grateful that the Monuments Men Foundation has shared research that helps shed light on this. We will update the provenance of the Bellotto for the Museum’s internal records and website with the new information that has emerged, once it has been fully evaluated. In the meantime, the online provenance has been streamlined, at my request, removing speculation in order to focus on fully documented facts."

For the time being, therefore, everything remains as is. It will need to be seen whether the Emden heirs will decide to appeal to the courts to make their case.

Photo: Bernardo Bellotto, The Pirna Market (c. 1764; oil on canvas, 48.3 x 79.7 cm; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts)

USA, it's battle around a Bernardo Bellotto painting sold for Hitler in 1938
USA, it's battle around a Bernardo Bellotto painting sold for Hitler in 1938

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.