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May 5, 2022 3:20 pm

Judge Rules Houston Museum Can Keep Nazi-Looted Painting Owned by German-Jewish Art Collector


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

“The Marketplace at Pirna” (ca. 1764), by Bernardo Bellotto. Photo: Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston / public domain

A federal judge ruled this week that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) can maintain ownership of an 18th century painting, in a decision against a German Jewish family who said their grandfather was forced to sell the artwork to Adolf Hitler’s art dealer, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Max James Emden’s grandchildren argued in federal court that their family are the rightful owners of “The Marketplace at Pirna” by Bernardo Bellotto, because Emden — a department store magnate and art collector — sold the landscape painting under duress to Nazi art dealer Karl Haberstock in 1938. They believe the artwork should be returned to their family.

After World War II, the painting, which shows a busy marketplace in Germany, was mistakenly given by the Allies to the Dutch government. The artwork then came into the possession of an international art dealer Hugo Moser, who sold it to a foundation who gifted the piece to the MFAH in 1961.

US District Judge Keith P. Ellison ruled that under the Act of State doctrine, the US government cannot interfere with the actions of sovereign governments — in this instance, the error in the painting’s return that led to the artwork being obtained by the museum. The court decided that the Dutch government is responsible for the mistake, and that the US cannot meddle with a sovereign government’s decisions, according to the Houston Chronicle.

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The Emden family said in their lawsuit that the painting was taken from their grandfather after his business suffered as a result of Nazi laws imposed against Jews, the Houston Chronicle reported.  Their argument discussed the Nazi genocide of Jews, and how those of Jewish heritage were stripped of their citizenship and forced to surrender their businesses and assets. Emden’s heirs said “The Marketplace at Pirna” was stolen from their grandfather’s personal collection in Switzerland, where he immigrated before 1930.

MFAH claimed, however, that Emden sold the artwork voluntarily to Haberstock, who met the Jewish businessman’s asking price. The museum argued that when it “thoroughly researched and reviewed the claim, we found no evidence that suggests that the Bellotto had been stolen, seized, or confiscated, and we have extensive documentation that in 1938 Dr. Max Emden, a Swiss citizen and resident, initiated the voluntary sale of our painting.”

The painting was discovered in a salt mine in Austria by the Monuments Men, a group of British and Americans who retrieved thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis and returned them to their original owners. The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art said last year that it sides with the Emden family in the case.

Following Ellison’s ruling, the foundation told the Houston Chronicle that the MFAH’s refusal to return the painting is an “example of greed” over “grace.” It added that last year, the museum’s director falsely claimed that the Bellotto in MFAH’s collection is not the one the Emdens are after, even though “the (museum’s) own website listed both Max Emden, and Karl Haberstock, Hitler’s main art buyer, in the chain of title.”

“Regardless of any court ruling, a painting once owned by a German Jew, stripped of his assets by the Nazis, now hangs in one of our nation’s wealthiest museums because of a 1946 clerical error and a 1951 fraud,” the foundation told the Chronicle.

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