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The art of theft

Attorney says 20 percent of Nazi-plundered works still in circulation

By Martha Moody Jacobs, Special To The Observer

Raymond J. Dowd

Attorney Raymond J. Dowd of New York is angry. Specifically, he is angry about art stolen from Jews by the Nazis.

In his talk, Masterpieces and Mystery, which he presented on May 21 at the Dayton Art Institute, Dowd told a rapt audience what he has learned as a plaintiff’s attorney for descendents of Jews seeking re-appropriation of art stolen from their ancestors.

Dowd specializes in litigation, arbitration, and intellectual property and art law with Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller Attorneys At Law.

Dowd began his talk, sponsored by the museum and the Federal Bar Association Dayton Chapter, with some history. Since 1863, under a regulation known as the Lieber Code, the U.S. has rejected taking “spoils of war.”

Later, many nations signed the Hague Conventions — an international agreement based in part on the Lieber Code — that stated in short, “You don’t steal cultural property from the enemy.” Germany was among the signatories of the Hague Conventions.

He explained two aspects of American tax law that can benefit people who buy and donate art. First, artwork more than 20 years old may be brought into the U.S. duty-free. Second, if a work of art is given to a charitable institution such as a museum, the donor receives a tax deduction equal to the work’s fair market value. If the owner were to sell the work at a profit, he would have to pay a capital gains tax.

Dowd introduced the audience to the story of Fritz Graubaum, a Jewish cabaret artist who perished in 1941 at Dachau. Before the Nazis came to power in 1938, Graubaum and his family were prosperous. Among their assets that year, documented in a Nazi operative’s typed list, were 81 works by the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele.

After April 1938, the Nazi government required any Jew with more than 5,000 Reichsmarks in assets to fill out a “Jewish Property Declaration” every three months. Assets were listed in four categories and included works of art. Dowd stated that the government used a variety of techniques — flight taxes on Jews leaving Germany, “atonement” taxes, confiscations, blocked bank accounts and business transactions — to plunder Jewish fortunes.

The Nazis were systematic and kept records. Illustrating the maxim of “follow the money,” Dowd presented a chart showing the diminishing wealth — documented in his quarterly declarations — of Fritz Graubaum.

Even after Graubaum was in a concentration camp, executors continued to plunder his assets.  “Stolen property helped finance the war effort,” Dowd said.

Sometimes the Nazis seized works of art outright from Jewish owners to pay off “taxes” as noted above; sometimes they bought art at low prices or Jews exchanged it for passes out of Germany. Some art was seized for German museums, and other art was sent to various European countries.

Works used as anti-Jewish propaganda in the infamous 1937 Munich “Exhibit of Degenerate Art” were later sold off by the German government to foreign buyers.

Dowd said that 20 percent of the art plundered by the Nazis is still circulating. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, art hidden in Russia came to light. Dowd suspects there is still art held in vaults in Switzerland.

Since 1999, when Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau seized two works of art from the Museum of Modern Art, declaring that they had been plundered by Nazis, provenance research — the study of the ownership and sale of a piece of art through the years — has become important, and sometimes contentious for museums.

Girl with Black Hair, by Egon Schiele

Even if provenance research suggests a problem, museums and their trustees may argue against parting with valuable parts of their collections to heirs (or alleged heirs) of former owners. Sometimes courts decide in favor of the museum based on the statute of limitation or on laches, the legal term for “why didn’t you say something sooner if you were so sure?”

Dowd told of two court cases in which works believed to have been stolen by the Nazis remained with their American museums because, he said, a Jewish art dealer had been involved in their sale.

One of the Schiele drawings Dowd finds documented in the 1938 Nazi list of Graubaum’s collection now resides at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio. The artist signed and dated it in 1911.

On the museum’s website the provenance of the work is listed: With Gutekunst & Klipstein, Bern (1956). Friends of the museum’s art fund purchased the work in 1958.

“Where was this work between 1938 and 1956?” Dowd asked, expressing outrage that the museum has not agreed to discuss this with him.

Asked if his view of art has been tainted by his knowledge of the illicit art trade, Dowd said that it disturbs him to see a work in a museum with a sign saying “donated by…“ when he suspects a darker story in the work’s past.

“It’s not beautiful to show something without its context.” On the other hand, Dowd said, “I appreciate these art works that much more. I look at them with a sense of appreciation and a sense of horror.”