Nazi-Looted Pissarro in Zurich Bank Pits Heiress Against Dealer

Bloomberg, 6 June 2007
Catherine Hickley

Gisela Bermann-Fischer was nine when her family fled Vienna the night before Hitler's army marched into Austria in 1938. They left almost everything in their haste: books, clothes and paintings.

Days later, Gestapo agents came for the art collection, according to an account by the family's nanny, who remained in the apartment. The men knew exactly where the pictures hung -- the Lovis Corinth flowers, the El Greco, the Paul Gauguin, and, in the dining room, Camille Pissarro's ``Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.'' The Nazis sold the art at a Vienna auction in 1940.

``My father started trying to get the paintings back in 1947,'' Bermann-Fischer, now 78, said by phone from Zurich. ``Many of the pictures were restored to us over the years through U.S. restitution processes. But the Pissarro never showed up.''

Until this year. After a 70-year search that she took over from her father in 1995, Bermann-Fischer now says she knows exactly where the painting is: in a safe at the Zuercher Kantonalbank in Zurich.

Rented by a company that prosecutors have linked to a Nazi art thief, the safe has been sealed as part of a three-nation probe into money laundering and extortion. It contains two other paintings, the authorities said: Pierre-Auguste Renoir's ``La Baie du Moulin Huet a Travers les Arbres -- Guernsey,'' and an 1879 oil by Claude Monet, ``Vue de Vetheuil, l'Hiver.'' It's unclear if they, too, were looted.

Goering's Thief

The safe was registered to a Liechtenstein trust, Schoenart Anstalt, controlled by Bruno Lohse, according to Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler in a phone interview. Lohse was a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering in 1941 to confiscate art in occupied France. Hoppler said his office seized the safe May 15 on behalf of authorities in Munich and Liechtenstein.

Imprisoned for war crimes until 1949, Lohse resumed his prewar work in the 1950s. He died in Munich on March 19, before prosecutors could question him. He was 95.

``It made me furious to think that after my father had tried so hard and almost given up the struggle to find this painting, it should end up in the hands of a thief of his own generation -- a Nazi thief,'' said Bermann-Fischer, who has dual Swiss and U.S. citizenship. ``It's an absolute scandal.''

Altogether, the Nazis stole about 650,000 works in the biggest art-looting spree ever, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the art-confiscation unit where Lohse worked, seized almost 22,000 objects in France alone, according to U.S. government figures.

``It was long suspected that Bruno Lohse had looted art in his ownership and it seems scarcely believable that he went to the grave without this being comprehensively investigated,'' said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London-based organization that helps track down stolen art.

Three-Nation Inquiry

Swiss prosecutor Hoppler said he secured the bank safe as part of a probe in Liechtenstein and Germany involving Lohse and another Munich art dealer. The dealer, Peter Griebert, denied any wrongdoing in an interview on June 1.

Liechtenstein authorities began investigating Lohse on suspicion of money laundering in January. His death forced them to call off that inquiry and open a new one against another suspect, said the Liechtenstein national court spokesman, Lothar Hagen, who declined to name the person. The probe focuses on Schoenart Anstalt, Hagen said in a phone interview.

Munich prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz is investigating Griebert, 69, on suspicion of attempted extortion related to an effort he and another man, U.S. historian Jonathan Petropoulos, made to return the Pissarro. Bermann-Fischer said Griebert made the handover contingent on receiving a fee of 18 percent of the painting's market value.

`Finder's Fee'

Griebert said in the interview that while he wanted a ``finder's fee,'' he didn't set it as a condition for the handover.

Petropoulos, a history professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who specializes in the Third Reich, isn't under investigation, Lutz said.

Both men knew Lohse. Griebert said he was a friend of Lohse, while Petropoulos said in an e-mail that he knew Lohse well, having met him ``dozens of times over a 10-year period.''

Bermann-Fischer's saga with Lohse began in 2003, when her lawyer, Norbert Kueckelmann, telephoned the art dealer to ask whether he had any information about the missing painting.

``He was the only one of those Nazi art dealers who was still alive,'' Kueckelmann said in an interview in his Munich home office. Lohse proved evasive, so Kueckelmann eventually filed a request for him to be questioned in court.

Bermann-Fischer says the first direct information she got on the painting's whereabouts came at a meeting in Munich on Jan. 8 this year, when she received a letter from Petropoulos.

`Treacherous'

According to a copy of the letter provided by Kueckelmann, Petropoulos wrote that he knew someone who said the holder of the painting was willing to return it. The contact wished to remain anonymous, said the letter, dated Dec. 7.

``Until then, I had been looking for the Pissarro like a blind chicken,'' Bermann-Fischer said. ``I had no idea where it was, except that it had been in an exhibition in 1984. So on the one hand, I was overjoyed and thought -- oh great, my efforts have worked! On the other, I had the feeling that I was entering something very treacherous.''

Petropoulos said he became involved in the negotiations as a consultant for Art Loss Register Ltd., a London-based company that operates a database of stolen art and provides provenance reports for art buyers and sellers. He said he waited to send Bermann-Fischer the letter until he had notified his client.

Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, confirmed that Bermann-Fischer had registered her lost painting with the company years before.

Hotel Meeting

Bermann-Fischer met with Griebert and Petropoulos on Jan. 25 in the Zurich Hotel Sankt Gotthard, where the two men told her they had seen the painting that morning and taken photos, which they showed her. Instead of agreeing to their terms, Bermann- Fischer said, she informed Kueckelmann, who filed a complaint against Griebert with the Munich prosecutors.

Griebert said in the interview that he hadn't seen the painting before that day. He said he had no authority to dispose of the safe's contents and had received the task of negotiating the restitution as a single assignment from a client he declined to identify.

Petropoulos, who directs Claremont McKenna's Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights, said he ``never had any idea that Lohse still controlled the painting.'' Asked whether Lohse may have sold other looted paintings, Petropoulos said it was ``not only possible, but likely.''

Dutch Masters

Willy Hermann Burger, Lohse's lawyer and the executor of his will, said the estate includes Lohse's private collection of paintings, though not the three paintings found in the safe. In an interview, Burger said Lohse never mentioned the Liechtenstein trust to him and that he didn't know who would take possession of its paintings. Lohse's sole heir is his niece, Burger said.

Lohse's preference was for 17th-century Dutch masterpieces and expressionists such as Gabriele Muenter and Emil Nolde, said Petropoulos. He estimates the collection is worth ``millions.''

The Pissarro is one of the artist's last, produced on an overcast morning from his wheelchair in a room overlooking the Seine. Bermann-Fischer said the painting was acquired in 1907 by her grandfather, Samuel Fischer, founder of S. Fischer Verlag, a German publishing house whose authors included Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse.

His son-in-law, Gottfried Bermann-Fischer, took over after Fischer died. When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, many S. Fischer Verlag authors were banned. The family left Berlin for Vienna in 1935, then fled to Switzerland and on to the U.S.

``My father always saw the theft by the Nazis as a humiliation,'' Bermann-Fischer said. ``The deception continues to this day. It's about finding out the truth. You can't undo the past: I just wanted to see through the search.

``Now it is just about getting my property back,'' she said.

To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net .

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