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May 30, 2014 12:57 pm

Australian Museum Returns First Nazi-Looted Art Piece to Heirs of Original Jewish Owner

avatar by Joshua Levitt

The National Gallery of Victoria will return this portrait unfairly sold because of Nazi duress. Photo: Screenshot.

The National Gallery of Victoria will return this portrait unfairly sold because of Nazi duress. Photo: Screenshot.

The National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, agreed to return a portrait in their collection to the heirs of its original Jewish owner, marking the county’s first successful Nazi restitution claim, the BBC reported on Friday.

Two unnamed South African sisters claimed they inherited the portrait as part of the estate of Jewish industrialist Richard Semmel, whose art collection was bequeathed to their grandmother, his companion after the death of his wife. Their lawyer said they had been searching for the painting for a decade.

Nazis had forced Semmel to sell the portrait in Amsterdam, in 1933, when his art collection was dispersed under duress.

In a statement, the museum said, “The NGV takes its responsibilities seriously in regard to determining the history of ownership of works of art, including the period from 1933 to 1945, when systematic looting, the confiscation of artworks, and persecutory anti-Semitic policies occurred under Nazi rule.”

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“As well as being guided by international law and the Washington Conference Principles to arrive at this decision, we also see this as a moral issue, on which it is important to take a strong position,” it said.

Under the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, which Australia has signed, the original owners and heirs are entitled to reclaim art looted or hurriedly sold because of the Nazis.

The painting was bought in 1940 from British Lieutenant Colonel Victor Alexander Cazalet for £2,196, several owners after Semmel, the museum said.

NGV director Tony Ellwood told The Australian it had been taken down from display on Tuesday night and is now “in storage,” the BBC reported.

The portrait, ‘Head of Man,’ was mistakenly believed to be from Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh, but experts at the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, ruled in 2007 that the painting was actually by an unknown contemporary, after its authenticity was questioned by British art critics, the BBC reported.

The NGV accepted that decision, which slashed the painting’s value from AUS $5 million ($4.65 million) to a reported AUS $10,000 ($9,300.)

Australian publication The Age said the heirs were open to talking about where the painting would be displayed, including the possibility it could stay at the NGV if they decided to sell.

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