MANHATTAN (CN) – Descendants of composer Felix Mendelssohn’s family sued Bavaria for return of a 1903 Picasso painting, “Madame Soler,” looted from their grand-uncle by forced sale under the Nazis.
Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning and Edelgard von Lavergne-Peguilhen sued the Friestaat Bayern, or Free State of Bavaria, in Federal Court.
The plaintiffs say they are descendants of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a Berlin banker and art collector who was forced to sell the painting on the cheap in 1934 because of Nazi persecution.
The Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family already was wealthy through banking when the composer Felix was born in 1809.
Schoeps et al. claim Bavaria refuses to return the Picasso oil portrait to the family, though the banker consigned the painting to an art dealer only “after nearly two years of intensifying Nazi persecution had devastated him financially, professionally, and socially.”
The family says they “seek to recover from Bavaria a painting by the artist Pablo Picasso entitled Madame Soler, oil on canvas (1903) (‘Madame Soler’ or ‘the painting’). The late Berlin banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (‘Mendelssohn-Bartholdy), who was exclusively of Jewish descent, lost the painting in 1934 Berlin in a paradigmatic forced transfer as a proximate consequence of unrelenting Nazi policies against Jews and concomitant predation.
“The plaintiffs – heirs of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (‘Mendelssohn heirs’) – have demonstrated to Bavaria that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy consigned the painting in 1934 to Berlin art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser (‘Thannhauser’) only after nearly two years of intensifying Nazi persecution had devastated him financially, professionally, and socially. The Mendelssohn heirs proved to Bavaria that when Mendelssohn-Bartholdy consigned the painting to Thannhauser, Nazi policies to eradicate Jewish-owned banks and bankers had reduced his income to only about fourteen percent (14%) of what it had been only two years earlier and … [f]aced with escalating Nazi predation directed at his real estate property – and with no reasonable expectation of receiving any sustainable future income from Mendelssohn and Co. – in October 1934 Mendelssohn-Bartholdy began liquidating his singular private modern art collection to protect his residual estate from Nazi seizure and to offset his precipitate deficit.
“Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s private art collection comprised approximately 60 master works by luminaries such as Picasso, van Gogh, Braque, Monet, Renoir and others. When he died of a heart attack at age 59 in 1935, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had sold or consigned some 16 of these artworks in a period of less than 1.5 years of Nazi rule (September 1933 through February 1935) – having never sold a single major work in the more than 25 years that he had collected art before the Nazis took power in 1933.”
Bavaria acquired the painting from Thannhauser in 1964 and “ignored the conspicuous possibility that Nazi policies had deprived Mendelssohn-Bartholdy of it. Moreover, the initiator of the purchase for Bavaria, Halldor Soehner, was himself an ex-Nazi,” the complaint states.
It adds: “When it acquired ‘Madame Soler’ in 1964, Bavaria was planning to sell secretly some 113 paintings that leading former Nazi officials like Herman GQring and Martin Bormann had owned, and to auction these works to unsuspecting buyers to raise money to acquire modern artworks like ‘Madame Soler.’ With ex-Nazi Soehner directing operations, Bavaria auctioned 106 of these works in 1966-67 by concealing the ownership history of these paintings so that prospective buyers remained unaware that notorious Nazi leaders once had owned them – and that the Nazis in turn may have acquired these works from persecuted Jews.”
In 1998, Germany “began an intensive international public relations campaign to encourage Holocaust victims and their heirs to submit claims to recover Nazi-era artwork,” the complaint states.
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s heirs say they submitted a claim to recover the Picasso painting, “which included an 86-page memorandum and scores of exhibits proving that Nazi duress had compelled Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to relinquish the painting. The Mendelssohn heirs additionally pointed out that this court had credited the bona fides of their claim in the closely related Schoeps v. Museum of Modern Art, 594 F. Supp.2d 461, 466 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) when it ruled that claimants had adduced competent evidence that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy ‘never intended to transfer any of his paintings and that he was forced to do so only because of threats and economic pressures by the Nazi government.'”
But Bavaria denied the claim, stating: “‘there is no connection between the sale of the artwork and the persecution of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy by the National Socialist regime.’ Bavaria later refused to submit the claim to a special commission in Germany established to resolve conflicting connections between museums and claimants in Holocaust era art recovery claims on the putative basis that the relevant evidence did not justify such a hearing,” the complaint states.
The heirs demand return of the painting or $100 million. They claim that by withholding the Picasso, “Bavaria in effect has ratified the wrongdoing of the Nazi government that purposefully compelled Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to forfeit the painting.”
They are represented by John Byrne Jr., with Byrne, Goldenberg and Hamilton, in Washington, D.C.