HOUSTON — A fight over an 18th-century painting landed the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in federal court earlier this year but a judge has since dismissed the case, allowing the museum to keep the work of art.
The people who were trying to take the painting are the grandsons of a German businessman who they say sold the Bernardo Bellotto painting to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's dealer under duress.
MFAH issued the following statement in regards to the dismissal:
"The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has received a prompt and definitive decision from the federal court on this matter. As was the case in 2006-2007, when we 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, for which he was paid his asking price. The decision affirms our good title."
The Monuments Men Foundation issued the following statement on the ruling:
“On May 27, 2021, MFAH Director Gary Tinterow wrote the Monuments Men Foundation stating, 'There is no physical evidence that ties the MFAH picture (Bellotto) to Emden, the Reichschancellery, or Linz.' That was false. At the time of his statement, the Museum’s own website listed both Max Emden, and Karl Haberstock, Hitler’s main art buyer, in the chain of title. In June, museum staff deleted both Emden and Haberstock from the chain of title, yet the following month, Tinterow confirmed Emden’s prior ownership in a print interview.
"The MFAH’s belated acknowledgment that the Bellotto painting is an Emden family heirloom means that, 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 Museum knows these facts by now. Instead of a demonstration of grace, we have an example of greed: the Museum paid nothing for the painting. While the Monuments Men Foundation is disappointed by the Court’s ruling, this is by no means the end of the case nor the MFAH’s moral imperative to restitute the Bellotto painting to the Emden family.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler was confiscating cultural property from other countries during World War II, including art.
During the war, there was an effort by allies to recover the stolen art. The people leading the movement became known as the Monuments Men. In 2014, George Clooney starred in a movie that was based on a book written by Robert Edsel that documented their efforts.
“To try and protect cultural treasures from the destruction of war,” Edsel said of the current issue.
Edsel said he keeps their efforts alive today through the Monuments Men Foundation, and that's where MFAH comes into the picture.
The painting in question is the 'Marketplace at Pirna' by Bernardo Bellotto, circa 1764. It's believed to be the one gifted to the museum in 1961 by art collector Samuel Kress.
One of the arguments was that the painting was once owned by German businessman Max Emden, whose descendants claim was forced to sell the painting to Hitler's art dealer, Karl Haberstock, under duress as his assets were seized by Nazis in Germany.
“When you strip them of the things that they’ve spent their life earning, ... They’re going to make whatever decisions they have to make to survive,” Edsel said.
MFAH argued otherwise. In a statement, it said the museum has evidence that Emden shopped the painting around in other countries before selling it to Haberstock at the full asking price. The museum said the sale was voluntary.
“I’d like someone to describe to me how there can ever be a level playing field when you’re negotiating with Adolf Hitler, and you’re a Jew,” Edsel said. “Nothing’s changing the underlying facts and those alone, in my view, are enough for the museum to say: 'This thing stinks to high heaven, we should return the picture.'"