Art May Have Been Stolen by Nazis
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Two Austrian sisters say a small oil painting hanging in the North Carolina Museum of Art was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and a New York agency has filed a formal request for its return.
Documents obtained by The News & Observer from the National Archives, the National Gallery of Art and other sources suggest the 16th-century work by Lucas Cranach the Elder _ 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.
While the museum’s curators say they are impressed by the accumulated records, they say they need more proof that the family once owned the painting ``Madonna and Child in a Landscape.″
The museum is bound by state laws governing public property, and that may hamper its ability to simply return a work of art, said chief museum curator John Coffey.
``I’m not at all disputing the claim,″ 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.″
In one of several memos to museum, state and federal officials, Coffey wrote: ``The museum will find itself the unwitting owner of Holocaust/WWII loot illegally expropriated and sold by the Nazis and later resold (laundered?) by at least two art dealers of questionable ethics. Given the increasing international call for final restitution of Holocaust era claims of gold, art and other property, we cannot expect this problem to go away.″
Some scholars estimate Nazi soldiers looted more than 200,000 of Europe’s finest paintings. Many have been returned, but thousands remain unaccounted for.
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.
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. Thalheimer sold it in 1952 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.
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.
The sisters’ claim was filed by the Holocaust Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department.