WASHINGTON (CN) – An 88-year-old Holocaust survivor claims in court that Germany refuses to return a valuable artwork stolen from his great-uncle by the Nazis and recently found in a trove with works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, locked away in the apartment of the son of Adolph Hitler’s art dealer.
David Toren sued the Federal Republic of Germany and the Free State of Bavaria in Federal Court for breach of bailment and conversion.
German officials reluctantly announced in 2012 that the stash of Nazi-stolen art had been recovered in 2010.
Toren, an 88-year-old New York attorney, says he escaped Germany in 1939 by way of train to Sweden. His parents were killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber in 1943.
“Toren has no heirlooms other than a single photograph of his family to remind him of his parents, and nothing that belonged to his family that he can pass on to his son and grandchildren,” he says in the complaint.
According to the lawsuit, a whistleblower leaked information to the press in 2012 that in 2010 German and Bavarian agents had raided the Munich apartment of 81-year-old recluse Cornelius Gurlitt, “seizing over 1,400 classic works of art, including paintings and drawings by Picasso, Chagall, and Matisse” that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Gurlitt, according to the complaint, is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, “an art expert who became known as ‘art dealer to the Führer’ in the 1940’s.”
Toren says the Nazis raided his great-uncle David Friedmann’s estates and stole his art collection, including the piece at issue, a painting by Max Liebermann called “Two Riders on the Beach.”
The complaint states: “Hitler’s twisted art campaign focused on three principal goals. First, he tried to rid the world of ‘degenerate art’ which, in his view, included abstract and other modern works. Second, he sold art in other countries to fund the Nazi war effort. Third, he wanted to establish the world’s preeminent art museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, and call it the ‘Führermuseum.’ Hitler employed the might of Germany’s military, police, and bureaucracy to prey on Jewish collectors and steal immensely valuable art to fulfill these goals.”
After Hitler’s death and the end of the war, Toren says “Two Riders” found its way along with thousands of other valuable works to Gurlitt’s possession. The art remained in his family until his son was busted in 2010 for tax evasion, his apartment raided and the treasure trove of art worth more than 1 billion euros was seized.
“For almost two years, German authorities kept the raid and art seizure secret, despite the fact that a number of these artworks were listed on the German government’s website for lost art, including ‘Two Riders,'” the complaint states. “The raid and seizure were disclosed to the public only because they were leaked by a whistleblower to the press.”
The announcement made headlines around the world.
“In a press conference that day, defendants provided information about the raid to the press and showed five of the paintings that had been seized,” Toren says in the complaint. “‘Two Riders’ was one of those shown. Indeed, the painting has become the ‘poster child’ of the raid and a symbol of the treasure trove, with many leading newspapers … publishing a color image of the painting on their front pages alongside stories of the raid.”
Toren claims he provided Germany and Bavaria with evidence of ownership, but the German officials won’t give the art to him.
“Every day that defendants deprive the rightful owners of possession of the Nazi-stolen works of art, they perpetuate the persecution of Nazi victims,” the complaint states. “Germany and Bavaria have not explained why they kept their discovery of Nazi-looted art secret for almost two years. Nor have they explained why they believed such secrecy would aid, rather than impede, their efforts to determine the artworks’ rightful owners.”
Toren seeks a court order forcing Germany and Bavaria to turn over “Two Riders” and the rest of his great-uncle’s collection to him.
Toren is represented by August Matteis Jr. of Wesbrod Matteis & Copley.
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