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Growing unease over looted Lubomirski Dürers

A sheet of paper found in a second-hand book by The Art Newspaper details valuations of the drawings when sold by Colnaghi

More details have emerged about the dispersal of the looted Lubomirski Dürers, which represented one of the most important collections of the artist’s drawings. The Lubomirski works were seized by Hitler and later secretly handed over by the Americans to Prince Georg Lubomirski, instead of being returned to the museum established by his family in the 1820s in Lemberg (later known as Lvov and now Lviv). In the early 1950s the prince quietly sold off the drawings.

The Art Newspaper has just obtained a typescript valuation of the Dürers. Headed “List of Dürer drawings from the Prince Lubomirski Collection”, it was discovered by chance, inserted into an old monograph on Dürer recently purchased in a London bookshop. The sixteen listed works, valued at $175,000, are those sold by Prince Lubomirski to Colnaghi in London in 1954. He sold eight further Dürers through other channels, and this suggests that the entire collection was worth over $250,000, a very considerable sum at the time.

Further information has come to light about the US decision to pass on the Dürers to Prince Lubomirski. Secret official papers, declassified a few weeks ago, reveal that there was considerable debate within the American government in the late 1940s on what should be done. It was not until five years after the war that it was finally decided not to return the drawings to Lviv, then in the Soviet Union. The city is in the Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Government is now seeking the return of the Dürers, which have been dispersed throughout Europe and North America, many of them ending up in public collections.

Earlier this year the American Government decided to re-examine the issue. On 30 January J.D. Bindenagel, senior coordinator of the Office of the Under Secretary of State and director of the Washington conference on Holocaust-era assets, addressed the US Association of Art Museum Directors and told them: “Ukraine asserts that the city of Lviv was the rightful owner of the drawings rather than the prince, because the Lubomirski family had earlier donated the drawings to the city. Ukraine is asserting an ownership interest in the drawings and has approached the US government, through the State Department, to question US actions in the postwar period.”

Mr Bindenagel then added: “The State Department considers Ukraine’s questions serious ones and has referred them to the National Archives for research on the 1940s return and also to the newly appointed Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. We have informed Ukraine of this referral, as well as the National Gallery of Art, which holds one of these drawings.”

Disputed Dürers

At one point it looked as if all the Lubomirski Dürers might end up at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. After the war Prince Lubomirski became friends with John Walker, the chief curator, and he held out the prospect of a tantalising gift. This offer is noted in a memo dated 16 April 1947 from the US European Command’s Director of Intelligence, which referred to a report by the US Military Attaché in Switzerland. The attaché reported that Prince Lubomirski was seeking help to track down lost “oil paintings and sketches” and he “wished to donate them to the National Museum in Washington”.

At this point the prince did not know what had happened to the looted Dürers, but following his enquiry it was found that they had been recovered from the Alt Aussee salt mine, where Hitler had hidden them towards the end of the war. It was Allied policy to return looted artworks to governments, not individuals, but Prince Lubomirski put considerable pressure on the US authorities, cultivating contacts at the highest level. By this time the Iron Curtain was descending on Europe, and Prince Lubomirski encouraged the Americans to reverse their policy against restitution to individuals, arguing against sending them to the Soviet Union.

The legal situation over the Dürers was usually complex. Although the Lubomirski Museum had been established by the family in the 1820s, a legal document of 1866 laid down if the museum were ever disbanded, the collection should be returned to the head of the family. This key Polish document was translated into English by the state department in the late 1940s and a copy was recently declassified.

Technically, the status of the museum and its collection was unclear after the war. There had been a series of disruptive events: the invasion of the Polish city of Lvov by the red army in 1939, the German occupation in 1941, the looting of artworks by the Nazis, the transfer of the city from Poland to the Soviet Union in 1945 and the agreement in 1947 to move part of the Lubomirski collection to the Polish city of Wroclaw (formerly Breslau).

But even if it could be argued that the Lubomirski Museum had been disbanded, a clause in the 1866 document stated that provided the museum was re-established within fifty years, the works of art should be returned to it by the family. There could be debate over when the fifty-year period should have begun (sometime between 1939 and 1947), but by now it would have expired. Until then, however, Prince Lubomirski would not have had “full ownership” and arguably he was not entitled to sell the Dürers in the early 1950s. Official US documents, now declassified, reveal that the authorities were reluctant to hand over the drawings, fearing they would become embroiled in an international legal claim. In July 1949 James Heath, head of the Legal Advice Branch of the US military government in Germany, recorded in a secret memo: “Title to the Dürer drawings claimed by Prince Lubomirski is extremely doubtful. Many complex questions of law and uncertainties of fact must be decided before any determination of title can be made. It appears that these issues can only be decided by court action.”

Despite Heath’s warnings, a further examination of the various issues led to the US State Department to eventually conclude that the drawings should be handed over. This took place on 26 May 1950. One of the conditions was that Prince Lubomirski would sign an undertaking absolving the US from possible legal problems resulting from the hand-over. Despite his earlier promised donation, the Prince then sold off the Dürers, mainly through Colnaghi. Decades later one of the drawings eventually went to the National Gallery of Art, when in 1991 Ian Woodner’s family donated “Nude man with solar disk”.

Many of the other drawings bought by Colnaghi later entered public collections—the Courtauld Gallery, the Barber Institute in Birmingham, the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Most recently, in 1997, the British Museum received through a bequest the “Rape of Europa”, now attributed to Baldung (see The Art Newspaper, No. 84, September 1998, p. 4).

Recent claims

Lviv became part of the independent Ukraine in 1991 and its government is now pressing for the return of the Dürers. This led to a meeting with the US State Department on 3 December 1998. Ukrainian lawyer Danylo Kurdelchuk commented afterwards: “We are laying the groundwork to this issue and until now we have decided to limit ourselves to discussions with government entities”, rather than owners of the drawings.

The National Gallery of Art is also undertaking further research on the Lubomirski Dürers. It has not yet reached a conclusion on the issue, but director Earl Powell III admits that “what we have seen so far casts doubt on the [Ukrainian] claim.” Other public collections are now awaiting the full results of the investigations by the National Gallery of Art and the American authorities.

The Dürer drawings are also being claimed by the Wroclaw-based National Ossolinski Foundation, which along with the Stefanyk Scientific Library represents a successor to the Lubomirski Museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Growing unease over Lubomirski Dürers'