Nazi Art Dealer's Will Disperses Dutch Masters, Expressionists

Bloomberg, 12 July 2007
Catherine Hickley

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting's prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

``Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,'' Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse's will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he's sure none of the paintings in Lohse's private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis' specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services' Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

``There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,'' said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Goering's Adviser

Goering chose Lohse, a specialist in Dutch 17th-century art, as his personal art adviser in France in 1941. One of Lohse's tasks was to organize exhibitions of looted works in Paris, from which the commander of the Luftwaffe chose items for his private collection at his villa near Berlin.

After the war and his interrogation by the U.S. Army, Lohse testified at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials in November 1945, the online archives of Cornell University Law Library show.

Historian and documentary maker Maurice-Philip Remy, who knew Lohse and is researching his collection and biography with the cooperation of the heirs, said Lohse was held by the U.S. until 1948. On Jan. 25 of that year, he was extradited to France, Remy said. He was held there until Aug. 3, 1950, when he was released by the Tribunal Militaire in Paris, court documents show. Burger, his lawyer, said that Lohse rarely spoke about the war and the period following it.

Old Masters

Lohse re-established himself as an art dealer in the 1950s, settling in Munich. His collection, according to Remy, consists of several 17th-century Dutch still lifes, an Emil Nolde watercolor and other Flemish, Spanish and French paintings. Remy said he is examining 40 works in all, including about 18 that Lohse sold or gave away over the past 25 years.

Remy said that of the 40, there are three paintings where he ``is not yet sure'' that the provenance is clean. ``I know every painting in the collection,'' Remy said in a telephone interview from Munich. ``It is not a stash of looted art.''

Law-enforcement authorities ``can't do anything'' to investigate Lohse's personal collection as long as there are no legal claims or complaints, Munich prosecutor Hans-Joachim Lutz said in a telephone interview. Lutz is leading an extortion investigation into a local art dealer and associate of Lohse in connection with the Pissarro discovery.

`Major Embarrassment'

``The prosecutors are focused on a somewhat narrow mandate,'' said Willi Korte, a lawyer and detective who tracks down Nazi- looted art. For Korte, hired to help the heir of the original owners find the looted Pissarro in 2003, the failure to investigate Lohse's art dealership and private collection before his death is ``a major embarrassment.''

``Lohse pretty much fooled us all,'' Korte said by telephone from Washington. ``It couldn't be a more obvious name. It's like trying to figure out who are the gangsters of Chicago and overlooking Al Capone.''

Lohse's lawyer Burger said he won't consider exhibiting the paintings before distributing them among the beneficiaries. Lohse had explicitly requested that his collection not be put on public display, Burger said. Lohse's main heir is his niece Iris Lohse, who will receive a part of the collection, according to Burger. She declined to be interviewed for this article.

``I have known Dr. Lohse as a friend for 17 or 18 years,'' Burger said. ``He was a very good connoisseur of Dutch art of the 17th century and of the impressionists. I cannot believe that he would have knowingly had stolen goods in his possession.''


Remy said Lohse's heirs want to make the findings of his research public when it is complete. ``If any of the paintings are looted, they should be returned,'' he said.

After the war, Lohse rejected under oath accusations that he kept looted art for himself or profited from trades in confiscated goods, according to the U.S. Army interrogation report. He conceded only that his Paris apartment was refurnished, during one of his absences, with confiscated furniture and rugs. He said the items were handed over to the Allies before he left Paris.

Even so, the army report concluded ``there can be no doubt that he played a leading part in the confiscation of Jewish art properties conducted by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in Paris.''
There is also no doubt that the Pissarro found in the safe rented by Lohse, called ``Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps,'' was Nazi plunder, says Sarah Jackson, historic-claims director at Art Loss Register Ltd. in London.

``It is clearly documented that the work was looted in Vienna by the Nazis, according to records we located in archives in Koblenz and Maryland,'' Jackson said in a telephone interview. Art Loss Register, a privately owned company, operates a database of stolen art and conducts provenance research on paintings.

Nazi Auction

``Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps'' was sold at a Nazi-organized auction at the Dorotheum in Vienna in 1940 and acquired by Eugen Primavesi on behalf of Hans W. Lange, a Berlin dealer who routinely traded confiscated Jewish property and who died in 1945, Jackson said. It is not yet clear how or when the painting ended up in Lohse's hands and in Switzerland, she said.

Korte described a ``silent conspiracy'' of Nazi dealers who cooperated after the war -- a theory that Webber at the Commission for Looted Art in Europe supported.

``Dealers who had collaborated during the war traded with impunity afterwards, especially in Germany and Switzerland, and many looted works of art acquired by them freely changed hands in this market,'' Webber said.

The Zurich prosecutor found two other paintings in the bank safe alongside the Pissarro -- Pierre-Auguste Renoir's ``La Baie du Moulin Huet a Travers les Arbres -- Guernsey,'' and an oil by Claude Monet, ``Vue de Vetheuil, l'Hiver.'' It is not known whether the paintings were also looted, Jackson said.

``There are definitely gaps in the provenance that still need to be researched'' in both cases, she said.

To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at · 76 Gloucester Place · London WIU 6HJ · +44 (0)20 7487 3401
© CLAE 2023
website by oxford web