MANHATTAN (CN) – An Upper East Sider who inherited a centuries-old painting faces a civil lawsuit from a German man who says East Germany stole the work from his father.
Dr. Konrad Meissner, a resident of Polling, Germany, says his father was a well-known art dealer in Dresden when the German Democratic Republic found itself currency-starved in the 1970s and 1980s.
To raise hard currency in Western countries, the East German State Security Service, better known as the Stasi, invented “fictitious tax obligations” to justify its seizures of private art collections, according to the March 20 complaint Meissner filed in Manhattan County Supreme Court.
Meissner says Adraen Coorte’s 1705 painting, “Still Life with Chestnuts,” was part of his father’s collection that the Stasi seized through a series of raids in 1982.
When Meissner’s father challenged “Operation Enemy,” as the government called it, the Stasi had him committed to a mental institution, according to the complaint.
Meissner traces the painting to a 1988 auction where a Swiss art dealer allegedly bought it and sold it to a New York couple, Henry and June deH. Weldon. An online report says that Christie’s oversaw the 1988 auction in which the painting went for $76,974.
Meissner says his claim is the subject of an administrative proceeding that Weldon’s father brought in Dresden, and of a civil proceeding that Weldon’s mother brought in Munich.
James Weldon, a resident of East 73rd Street, allegedly inherited the painting.
Meissner says the future of the Munich case, the jurisdiction of which he contests, is uncertain.
With a three-year statute of limitations in New York ticking, Meissner “must commence the present action in this court at this time as a protective measure as the Munich court has not yet decided on jurisdiction and proceedings in Dresden are still pending,” according to the complaint.
“At this point it is not finally decided yet that jurisdiction will be accepted in Germany and that either proceeding in Germany can lead to a return of the painting.”
“Still Life with Chestnuts” is a painting Meissner claims to remember well from the collection his father began assembling 1926.
Meissner’s father worked to rebuild the collection as soon as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, according to the complaint, which notes that Germany’s tax authorities ultimately declared “the original GDR tax assessment against him to be, for the most part, in violation of fundamental legal principles.”
It was not until 2011 that Meissner’s son traced the chestnuts painting to the Weldons, the complaint alleges.
Meissner says the German museums where he traced other items from the collection “have readily returned” these items, “without requiring any settlement payment from him.”
An attorney for the Weldons allegedly rejected Meissner’s claim by a letter dated June 13, 2012.
Meissner wants the painting returned, or compensation for its value, as well as damages “to compensate plaintiff for loss of use of the painting.”
He is represented by Joseph Patella with Andrews Kurth.
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