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The very comical tragedy of the Schloss collection's “Rembrandt”

Christie’s, US Customs, a bankrupt dealer, hoards of lawyers, and much time and money played a part in this

A Schloss recovered: much ado about a “School of Rembrandt”

In 1945, after the Nazi surrender, thousands of paintings had piled up at a collecting point in Munich for restitution to the Jewish families from whom the works were looted. With crowds on the street and no law enforcement, a riot broke out among Germans and displaced persons and the mob stormed the building. Looters seized whatever they could; some 220 paintings from the collection of Adolphe Schloss, that the Nazis and their French collaborators had seized in 1943, were looted once again. Most have never reappeared, although those that were not destroyed in the melée are assumed to have entered the art market. One of those paintings is now being returned to a Schloss heir: “Old man with a white beard and a black hat”, an alleged Rembrandt, is due to be sent from the US to Jean de Martini, who lives in Paris.

The picture had passed from a Munich dealer to Canada to one of America’s most distinguished collections, and then through a major auction house to a now bankrupt dealer in Asian objects. But today, almost no one considers the newly scrutinised “Old man” to be by Rembrandt. Was the battle for what might be the crumbs of the Schloss collection worth it?

The collection

Adolphe Schloss assembled his collection of minor Old Masters in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Austrian-born Jewish haberdasher shared one love with the Nazis: a preference for seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. In 1940 when the Germans occupied Paris, the Schloss pictures were at the top of Hitler’s list for his Linz museum. Hermann Goering also coveted them. But the collection had been moved outside Paris to parts unknown. At the request of Karl Haberstock, Hitler’s art buyer, Roger Dequoy and Georges Destrem spent two years searching for the pictures.

Not to be outdone for thuggery, France’s fiercely anti-Semitic Commissioner for Jewish Affairs got results. Louis Darquier de Pellepoix bribed various Parisian art movers. One informed him that the pictures had been moved to a castle in Corrèze, near Tulle. Gestapo agents learned the precise location after arresting Schloss’s sons in unoccupied Nice. Darquier offered his German friends a deal: he would provide trucks to take SS-men disguised as French civilians to the hiding place, if his commission could oversee an eventual Schloss sale, with the Louvre getting preemptive rights to any picture. All proceeds would go to the Commission for Jewish Affairs.

Yet getting the pictures to Paris presented other obstacles. In April 1943, Darquier’s crew, led by an “Alsatian” seized the paintings from the castle and placed them in a local bank vault. It took days to overcome the bewilderment of bank officials at the German-accented movers and to load the cases for the trip to Paris. Once the French milice got wind of the gambit, they intercepted the convoy on the road and a fierce argument erupted. Panicked at the prospect of gunfire, the Germans called in troops from Limoges. After a stop at a German army base, the shipment continued to Paris for storage in the Bank Dreyfus, headquarters of the Jewish Affairs Commission.

In the eventual sale, the Louvre took forty-nine works to round out its collection and paid the equivalent of $5 million in today’s currency. Two hundred and sixty went to the Germans. Twenty-two other works were bought by a M. Buittenweg, who has never resurfaced and is thought to have been a phantom buyer for Jean-François Lefranc, a dealer close to Darquier. All payments went to the Commission for Jewish Affairs. The Schlosses received no compensation, although the Louvre pictures were given back after the war.

That same year, Hitler’s dealers sent their pictures to the Führerbau, the Reich’s Munich headquarters. After the surrender and before Allied troops could put Munich’s looted art holdings in order, the mob had emptied the building where the pictures were deposited. What was not destroyed was stolen.

Mr Ashkenazie’s great hope

“Call me Sydney,” Sydney Ashkenazie says with a Brooklyn accent. “Mr Ashkenazie was my father.” In 1993, the dealer in Asian objects was in New York on a buying trip. Mr Ashkenazie stopped by Christie’s East for its sale of Old Master paintings, drawings, and picture frames. He spotted a “School of Rembrandt” portrait of a dour old man, with a high estimate of $2,500 and a catalogue provenance that listed the Estate of Ian Woodner—a diamond in the rough? Mr Ashkenazie drove up the bidding and finally bought the portrait for $29,000. (His $55,000 cheque for that picture and other items never cleared the bank—an omen?). Mr Ashkenazie would profit enormously, once he could establish the picture’s pedigree as a bona fide Rembrandt.

A dealer who operated out of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, Mr Ashkenazie had already enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame. In 1988, he sold $500,000 of jade objects to Leona Helmsley, a New York hotelier whose regal tastes and scorn for the unwealthy had won her the nickname “the queen of mean.” At his client’s request, Mr Ashkenazie furnished blank invoices so that Helmsley could list her purchases as tax-deductible office furniture. “It was the biggest mistake of my life,” the dealer confessed in an interview last spring. Mr Ashkenazie avoided prosecution then by testifying at the high-profile trial that led to Helmsley’s imprisonment.

The “Rembrandt” in hand, Mr Ashkenazie and his lover, Elizabeth White, assembled a thick dossier on the “Old man”. They learned that the picture had once belonged to the King of Poland and that they might have trouble selling it, since it had been in the Schloss collection. But Mr Ashkenazie had a strategy. Since the picture might bring up to $8 million on the market, he would agree to split the proceeds with any Schloss heirs, if he could find them. But before the picture could realise that windfall, the dealer went bankrupt. Collectors in Denver were suing him for fraud, alleging that he sold them twentieth-century jade objects as antiques. Elizabeth White fled with him to New Orleans with the “Rembrandt”—his $10 million ticket out of bankruptcy—and contacted a lawyer.

The sting

The lawyer, Christopher Glisson, set out to sell the picture, aware of the risk that the Schlosses might claim it. After reading an article about French art losses during the Nazi era, he contacted me in the spring of 1996. His client would be willing to split any proceeds with heirs of the Schloss family, said Mr Glisson, who explained that he was a novice to the art market, and had no idea whom to contact. I suggested that he contact Thomas Kline, a Washington attorney who specialises in the restitution of cultural property. Glisson contacted Kline, who contacted the French Restitution Office in Paris and a journalist close to Jean de Martini.

Thomas Kline also contacted Willi Korte, a German specialist in documenting stolen art claims. Mr Korte then called some acquaintances at US Customs, and arranged for agents with false identities to pose as buyers, with the German-accented Mr Korte posing as an expert. Mr Ashkenazie arrived in New York to discuss the sale. On his second meeting, the agents revealed their true identities and seized the work, which is still in New York. Mr Ashkenazie was not arrested, but in hours of questioning, he admitted that the work was probably stolen.

Yet Customs’ triumph at snagging a Rembrandt looted by the Nazis came with a catch. Soon after the sting, the agents learned that the picture is almost certainly not a Rembrandt. It may just be a nineteenth-century copy, not even a “School of Rembrandt” work, experts say. And whether a Rembrandt or not, Mr Ashkenazie’s creditors wanted it sold to satisfy their claims against him. A bankruptcy court in San Francisco wanted jurisdiction over the work.

Hopes dashed

Otto Naumann, a Manhattan dealer who specialises in Old Masters, remembered a visit at which the agent pleaded, “desperately wanting me to say it was a real Rembrandt, so they could further their careers at the expense of the poor fool who had tried to sell them the painting.” Was it the real thing? “Absolutely no possibility, none whatsoever,” the dealer told the agent. “They did not want to believe me when I told them that it was worth less than what it went for at Christie’s East,” recalled Mr Naumann. With that low appraisal, the US government lost interest in bringing criminal charges against Mr Ashkenazie for trading in stolen goods. Once again, Sydney Ashkenazie had escaped prosecution.” “They just dropped the ball,” said Mr Korte.

And another player was threatening to pull out. Jean de Martini, in poor health, lacked the funds or the energy for an all-out lawsuit to recover the picture. Even though Mr de Martini’s lawyer in Washington, Thomas Kline, had taken the case pro bono, the fees for court petitions and expert witnesses would be huge. Mr de Martini suggested abandoning the entire matter. The parties began seeking a settlement.

Mr Ashkenazie reflects

Meanwhile, Mr Ashkenazie’s creditors were suing Christie’s, citing a New York State law which holds an auction house liable if it offers a painting for sale with title problems that the auction house should have known about. Sydney Ashkenazie never wavered from his position, based on pre-1945 scholarship, that the work is indeed a Rembrandt. But Mr Ashkenazie concedes that the experience taught him a lesson. “Every painting on the market, if it’s an Old Master, should be automatically thought of as stolen,” he told me from St Louis, where he said he was starting a new business in Old Masters.

The blame rests with Christie’s, the dealer insists, in offering for sale a painting that was stolen. Mr Ashkenazi is launching a new legal effort to determine why the picture was consigned at Christie’s East instead of at Christie’s “where it belonged”, he says. Mr Ashkenazie also sees jealousy as a factor: “The reason I’m in all the problems I’m in, is that I’m the one who shook the trees. I made incredible purchases that they missed.”

Before the end of the year, the parties almost reached a settlement, which would have involved returning the painting to Mr de Martini for a year on the agreement that the Schloss heir would consign the picture to Christie’s for sale and shoulder the expenses and a seller’s premium. When Mr de Martini rejected that compromise on the grounds that he was being asked to “ransom” the work, all sides planned for a trial. Mr de Martini’s lawyers attempted one final manoeuvre. They requested a summary judgment from the bankruptcy judge in San Francisco, arguing that all the evidence was available. The judge returned with the decision that the work should be returned to Jean de Martini.

Only the second time in US legal history has a court granted a summary judgement to return a stolen work of art, said Craig Hodges.

Faced with no painting and a lawsuit from the creditors alleging that it should have known the Old Man was stolen, Christie’s capitulated. The auction house agreed to pay $30,000 to Mr Ashkenazie’s bankruptcy trustee.

Curiously, while the matter languished in bankruptcy court, Christie’s sold two more Schloss paintings: on 13 November 1997, “Portrait of an artist: a painter before his Easel” attributed to Adriaen Brouwer for $5,750 and “The portrait of Maria de Medicis” by Peter Paul Rubens for $6,900. The Rubens was listed in the catalogue as “The allegory of Fortitude” by Abraham van Diepenbeek. The buyer of both pictures was the Kilgore Gallery of New York. The Brouwer has since been sold and reappeared in the inventory of Galerie Salomon Lilian of Amsterdam at the Maastricht Fair last year.

Although its fate has received little notice, the “Rembrandt’s” seizure has tarnished the reputation of the Customs Service in the eyes of lawyers defending their clients against stolen art claims. One attorney issued a warning about law enforcement and art. “The government says it’s a Rolex, but it turns out to be a Swatch,” he said. “It would seem to me that their money would be better spent if they used people with credentials, not just somebody with a badge.”

Marie Hamon-Jugnet, Collection Schloss, oeuvres spoliés pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale non restituées 1943-98 (Ministrère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris, 1988), fax +33 (0)1 43174844

Dramatis personae

“Old Man with a white beard and black hat” also know as “Old man”, “Jew”, “Old Jew”, and “The scholar”. An oil painting on panel alleged to be a 1634 work by Rembrandt van Rijn. One of the few pictures to have surfaced from the Schloss collection, it is at the heart of this dispute.

Adolphe Schloss the Austrian-born department-store owner (d. 1911) who amassed a collection of Old Master paintings in France.

Adolf Hitler Austrian-born Nazi leader who admired seventeenth-century Dutch paintings and sought Schloss’s collection for the huge museum planned for Linz, his Austrian birthplace on the Danube.

Hermann Goering Luftwaffe head, considered primus inter pares among Nazi art aficionados, who also coveted Schloss pictures.

Louis Darquier de Pellepoix head of Vichy France’s Commissariat Générale pour les Questions Juives, who saw an opportunity for French profit in the Schloss paintings and

Jean de Martini former automobile executive and adopted grandchild of Adolphe Schloss. He claims that the painting is his property. As The Art Newspaper goes to press, a bankruptcy court in San Francisco and the French Government are preparing to ship the picture back to Paris.

Ian Woodner deceased American art collector who bought the “Old Man” in 1968 for $105,000, thinking it was a Rembrandt.

Sydney Ashkenazie art dealer in San Francisco who bought Old Man in 1993 at Christie’s East for $29,000, as School of Rembrandt, later concluding it to be by Rembrandt himself. Now bankrupt.

Elizabeth White business associate and intimate of Mr Ashkenazie, who researched the painting’s history and fled with the painting to New Orleans. Thought to be living in London.

Willi Korte researcher who organized “sting” in New York City, in which US Customs agents, posing as representatives of the Schloss family, seized the painting, assuming it to be a Rembrandt.

Thomas Kline partner at the law firm of Andrews & Kurth, who convinced Mr de Martini to stay with the case and pursued it pro bono.

Craig Young: “Of Counsel” at Andrews & Kurth, who argued the motion that won the case for Mr de Martini.