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Heirs of Jewish dealer sue Bavaria in US court

Alfred Flechtheim’s descendants say paintings by Beckmann, Gris and Klee were sold under duress after the Nazis seized power

by Catherine Hickley  |  7 December 2016
Heirs of Jewish dealer sue Bavaria in US court
The art dealer Alfred Flechtheim
The heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer persecuted by the Nazis, have sued Bavaria in a US court to claim eight paintings by Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and Juan Gris that they say were sold under duress.

The founder of an art magazine and one of Germany’s most prominent dealers in contemporary art, Flechtheim was among the first targets of anti-Semitic victimisation, attacked in a barrage of hate articles in the Nazi press even before 1933. He fled to London via Zurich and Paris soon after Hitler seized power. He died in exile in 1937.

The eight paintings in question, with a shared value of as much as $20m, are in possession of the Bavarian State Paintings Collection, which maintains Flechtheim sold the six paintings by Beckmann before the Nazis came to power and that the paintings by Gris and Klee were also lawfully acquired. The heirs argue that all eight works were sold after 1933, and therefore classify as sales under duress. They also accuse Bavaria and the German government of withholding documents in the estate of the Nazi-era dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt that could help clarify the provenance of the paintings.

The Bavarian authorities “refused to listen and to talk to us and that leaves us with no other option but to go to court here,” says Mike Hulton, a California-based doctor and Flechtheim’s great-nephew. “It is past time for Bavaria to do the right thing.”

The disputed paintings are Beckmann’s Duchess of Malvedi (1926), Still Life With Cigar Box (1926), Still Life With Studio Window (1931), Dream—Chinese Fireworks (1927), Champagne Still Life (1929), Quappi in Blue (1926), Jug and Glass on a Table (1916) by Gris, and Klee’s Limits of Understanding (1927).

Flechtheim’s legacy has long been controversial and the claims are complex. Earlier this year, the heirs withdrew from hearings by the Limbach Commission, a German panel set up in response to the 1998 Washington Principles on returning Nazi-looted art in public collections, complaining that there were procedural deficiencies.

The panel in any case issued a recommendation against restituting another painting by Gris that now hangs in a Düsseldorf museum but once adorned Flechtheim’s Berlin apartment. It argued that the sale of the painting in London in 1934 was not a result of Nazi persecution.

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