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Museum of Fine Arts Houston locked in legal battle over Bernardo Bellotto painting

The museum says they possess it rightfully while grandchildren of a previous owner say it should be returned due to the way it left their heir.

HOUSTON — A fight over a piece of 18th-century art has landed the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in federal court.

MFAH wants to hold onto the paintings. The people trying to take it are the grandsons of a German businessman who they say sold the art to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's dealer under duress.

History

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

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 is 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 argues otherwise. In a statement, it says 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 says 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.'"

Legal battle

Edsel said there are a number of things working against the museum, including a 2019 ruling in Germany that returned two other Bellotto paintings to the Emden heirs.

“All they have to do is take the painting off the wall and give it to the heirs and the matter is closed,” Edsel said.

The issue is now being heard in federal court. MFAH has filed a motion to dismiss and is still waiting on the judge's ruling.

Click here to read MFAH statement.

Click here to read the Monuments Men Foundation statement.

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