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Art May Have Been Stolen by Nazis

November 8, 1999

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Officials with the North Carolina Museum of Art say they want to ``do the right thing″ in resolving a dispute over a 16th-century painting that wound up at the museum more than 40 years after allegedly being stolen by Nazis during World War II.

Two elderly Austrian sisters say the painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder was stolen from their family. A New York agency has filed a formal request on their behalf for its return.

Documents obtained by The News & Observer from the National Archives, the National Gallery of Art and other sources suggest that ``Madonna and Child in a Landscape,″ estimated to be worth $750,000, was taken 50 years ago from the Vienna home of the sisters’ great-uncle, spent a brief period in the villa of the Nazi governor of Austria, and changed hands at least three times before ending up at the Raleigh museum.

``I’m not at all disputing the claim,″ chief curator John Coffey told the newspaper in an article published Sunday. ``I’m just aware that since we are dealing with state property, we have to have certain legalities taken care of.

``We are really determined to do the right thing.″

Oliver Kuhschelm, a Viennese historian who is representing the family, declined to comment on the status of the sisters’ claim, which was filed by the Holocaust Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department.

The Cranach painting, 16 inches by 10 inches, shows a Madonna holding an infant reaching for a bunch of grapes in her hand.

According to the records, the painting arrived in America in 1950 when it was sold to New York art dealer Siegfried Thalheimer, who sold it two years later to art dealer Abraham Silberman.

The following year, when FBI agents questioned the two in response to a claim from the sisters’ family. Silberman, who had sold the painting to George Khuner of Beverly Hills, didn’t tell the FBI where it was.

The Raleigh museum obtained the painting in 1984 from the estate of Marianne Khuner.

Earlier this year, the Seattle Art Museum returned a $2 million painting by French impressionist Henri Matisse after the heirs of a French art dealer sued. The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are among several museums trying to determine the veracity of other claims.

Several experts in Nazi stolen art said after reviewing the documents that the sisters, who asked not to be publicly identified, appear to have a strong claim to the painting.

``It is one of the best-documented, most convincing cases I have ever seen,″ said Willi Korte, a lawyer and investigator who has researched several cases for families and museums.

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