Heirs Sue Bavaria for Return of Nazi-Looted Art

MANHATTAN (CN) — Nazis called art collector Alfred Flechtheim the “art Jew” in the “Jewish world conspiracy” that was defiling the “German people’s soul,” but that didn’t stop them from looting his paintings when he fled for his life, his heirs claim in a lawsuit against Bavaria.

Flechtheim’s heirs, Dr. Michael Hulton and Penny Hulton, sued The Bavarian State Paintings Collections and the State of Bavaria on Monday, demanding the return of eight paintings: six by Max Beckmann, a Juan Gris and a Paul Klee.

The Beckmanns are “Duchess of Malvedi” (1926), “Still Life with Cigar Box” (1926), “Still Life with Studio Window” (1931), “Dream — Chinese Fireworks” (1927), “Champagne Still Life” (1929), and “Quappi in Blue” (1926).

The Hultons also demand the return of “Cruche et verre sur un table” (1916) by Juan Gris and “Grenzen des Verstandes” (1927), by Klee.

Flechtheim was one of the most important and influential patrons of avant garde art in the interwar-era in Germany. “Flechtheim fled Nazi Germany in 1933 in mortal fear and to save his life,” the Hultons say in the complaint. “These paintings were part of his privately owned large art collection and were lost to Flechtheim due to the policy of racial persecution and genocide.”

Michael Hulton is the grand-nephew of Flechtheim. His father, Flechtheim’s nephew Heinz Alfred Hulisch, was Flechtheim’s sole heir. Penny Hulton is the widow of Hulisch, who changed his name to Henry Alfred Hulton.

The Hultons accuse the State of Bavaria of giving greater priority to the privacy of a family that hoarded looted art for decades than it extends to the victims of the looting, by refusing to make public the purchasing records of Nazi art buyer Cornelius Gurlitt.

They claim the Bavarian State Paintings Collections title claims to the paintings are “defective because it was rooted in the seizure of Flechtheim’s property in violation of international law.”

The Bavarian defendants claim that Flechtheim sold his paintings to Gunther Franke in 1932. But the Hultons say “there is no proof” of this. “On the contrary, Flechtheim was still the owner of the paintings when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party seized power on January 30, 1933 and it was only the Nazi-induced destruction of his livelihood and subsequent escape from Germany that allowed Franke to possess these paintings much later before conveying them to the defendants.”

The Hultons say the Nazi looters were “opportunists who preyed on Flechtheim’s vulnerable position, as a result of Germany’s and Bavaria’s genocidal intent, [and] did so knowingly, and furthered the genocidal scheme of Germany and Bavaria.”

A single paragraph in the Hultons’ 51-page lawsuit sums up the Nazis’ systematic looting of art, and what happened to it when the war was over.

“Among the evidence that proves this theft is the recent scandal in which Bavaria is directly implicated, namely, the seizure of 1,280 works of art from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012 that were amassed by Gurlitt’s father, the Nazi art dealer and Adolf Hitler’s art agent Dr. Hildebrand Gurlitt, during the Nazi era,” the complaint states. “As that story revealed, Hildebrand Gurlitt was appointed as a dealer for the Führermuseum in Linz and he traded in modern art, under orders from the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda led by Joseph Goebbels. He was one of the four dealers appointed by the Commission for the Exploitation of Degenerate Art (together with Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller and Bernhard Böhmer) to market confiscated works of art abroad. Some 16,000 so-called ‘degenerate’ artworks had been removed from museums and confiscated all over Germany. Many such works that were deemed unlikely to yield foreign currency were simply destroyed. Some of these works were exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937, where Flechtheim was defamed with racist caricatures as a stereotypical Jew in the arts.” (Parentheses in original.)

An attorney for Bavaria said that the “Free State of Bavaria has not yet been served with the complaint, and it would not be appropriate to comment at this juncture except to say that we believe plaintiffs’ claims lack merit, and that no jurisdictional basis exists for this case to proceed.”

Flechtheim founded Der Querschnitt (The Cross Section) in 1921, which his heirs call “the leading European cultural magazine at the time.” It was well known by U.S. expatriates after World War I, such as Ernest Hemingway, who mentions it in his 1935 book, “Green Hills of Africa.”

Flechtheim died in London on March 9, 1937 at 59.

Representatives of The Bavarian State Paintings Collections did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Hultons are represented by Nicholas O’Donnell with Sullivan & Worcester in Boston.