Two cases highlights how Nazi looting still haunts the art world

Paul Cézanne's La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, dated 1897, is on show for first time since before WWII, while a Polish case remains unresolved.

Kunstmuseum Bern

The descendants of impressionist painter Paul Cézanne have reached an agreement with Kunstmuseum Bern, which has been acknowledged as the rightful owner of La Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The painting has gone on show in Switzerland for the first time since before the Second World War. The work is said to be one the most famous of Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoard of Nazi-looted paintings, which was discovered in 2012 during raids on the reclusive octogenarian’s flat in Munich, The Art Newspaper reports.

Agreement benefits all

The painting will now remain in the possession of the Swiss museum, which the family acknowledges as the rightful owner. In exchange, the Kunstmuseum Bern has granted the Cézanne family the right to exhibit the work at the Musée Granet in Cézanne’s home town of Aix-en-Provence. Philippe Cézanne, the artist’s grandson, describes the solution as ‘in the spirit of the Swiss-French friendship.’ The agreement, he adds, allows ‘two great museums to show a masterpiece for the benefit and enjoyment of a great audience.’ No money has exchanged hands as part of the deal. Mr Gurlitt bequeathed the work, along with hundreds of others, to the Kunstmuseum Bern weeks before he died in 2014. He had inherited a large collection from his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a dealer for the Nazis who bought works that had been plundered from Jews or sold by Jews desperate to leave Germany. The work was in the possession of the Cézanne family until 1940, when the provenance trail stopped. ‘From our knowledge today, the work was not Nazi looted art, the work was confiscated by Nazis in Paris, but subsequently returned to the owners,’ Nina Zimmer, the director of the Kunstmuseum Bern, told The Art Newspaper, adding ‘there was no Nazi persecution of the owners.’

Polish charges

Nazi looting still haunts the art world. Also reported is a Russian-born art dealer who is suing Poland over its failed efforts to extradite him from the US. After offering to return a work looted by the Nazis in exchange for his family’s former real estate, Alexander Khochinsky was placed under house arrest in New York and faced a 10-year prison sentence in Poland. He had alerted Polish diplomats in Moscow in 2010 that the work was in his possession, and that he had received it from his father, a Second World War veteran. Khochinsky told them that he was willing to exchange the picture for compensation for real estate that had belonged to his mother’s family in the south-eastern Polish city of Przemysl before the war. However, no settlement was reached and the dealer was arrested in New York in February 2015 when US prosecutors complied with a request from Poland to extradite him for holding a painting plundered during the Second World War. Khochinsky, a US citizen, now says that charges of trafficking in stolen art and months of house arrest have damaged him and his business. His lawyer, Nicholas O’Donnell, sees a broader agenda in the ‘baseless’ Polish charges, which he says are a form of ‘vengeance and intimidation.’

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