Nazi loot

Goodman restitution case settled out of court

Disputed Degas to go to the Art Institute of Chicago


A trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and the heirs of a Dutch Jewish couple who lost their collection and died in a Nazi concentration camp have avoided going to trial over “Landscape with smokestacks,” an 1890 Degas pastel that was looted in occupied Paris, the heirs said.

After two years of fighting the claim by Lili Gutmann (The Art Newspaper, No.69, April 1997, p.37), the collectors’ daughter, and Nick and Simon Goodman, their grandsons, Daniel C. Searle, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, agreed to give up the picture to the Art Institute in exchange for a tax deduction equal to half the work’s appraised value. The Art Institute agreed to pay the Goodmans half the appraised price in cash. The picture will enter the Art Institute’s collection, and it will bear a plaque detailing the history of the pastel and the Nazis’ pillaging of the Goodman collection.

Heirs to the fortune of the Dresdner Bank, in 1939 Friederich and Luisa Gutmann sent three modern works from a collection consisting mostly of Old Masters and decorative arts to the P. Graupe Gallery in Paris. The pictures—two Degas and a Renoir—were seized by the Einsatztab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a Nazi confiscation agency, according to the Goodmans. The Degas ended up in the inventory of the German dealer Hans Wendland, who conducted a lucrative trade in Switzerland with members of the Nazi leadership, including Hermann Goering.

Friederich and Luisa Gutmann left Holland in May 1943, bound for Italy via Berlin, but were taken off their train south of Berlin and confined in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Friederich Gutmann was beaten to death after refusing to sign over what remained of his family’s collection. His wife was gassed in Auschwitz. In 1987, Mr Searle bought the Degas for $875,000 on the advice of Douglas Druick, the Art Institute’s “Daniel C. Searle Curator”. The New York dealer Margo Pollins Schab handled the sale from Emile Wolfe, the collector who had bought the pastel in 1951.

During much of the dispute, Mr Searle’s lawyers argued that Friederich Gutmann sent the Degas to Paris for sale and maintained that Wendland’s 1950 acquittal for property crimes by a French court proved the dealer’s business was legitimate. Mr Searle, whose net worth is estimated at some $1 billion, implied that the Goodman claim was extortion.

The terms of the final deal were proposed by the Goodmans and the Art Institute a year ago, and rejected at the time by Mr Searle, who offered the Goodmans $50,000 to drop their case. Mr Searle’s decision to accept the settlement came two weeks after his petition to dismiss the case was denied by a Federal judge in Chicago, and a few days after the US broadcast of a Channel 4 documentary, “Making a killing,” an elegy to the Goodmans’ wartime suffering and their search for their art collection.

The resolution of the dispute leaves questions unanswered. By purchasing the Degas, the Art Institute avoids having its curators testify publicly about their counsel to Mr Searle, and their failure (admitted in pre-trial depositions) to notice or inform one of the museum’s major benefactors that a Nazi figured prominently in the picture’s provenance—a glaring red flag to specialists in the field of art restitution. The Art Institute curators also admitted that Mr Searle overpaid for the Degas.

The settlement leaves the crucial issue of due diligence unresolved. Searle’s lawyers argued that the Goodmans lost their rights to claim the picture, because they should have done so decades earlier, when the Degas was exhibited and published as part of an exhibition at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University. The Goodmans maintained that they had no reason to believe that the picture was in the US, and had searched for it in Germany and Russia.

Two years of fighting the claim are said to have cost Daniel Searle more than $1 million. The Goodman family spent so much on its claim that the brothers placed an advertisement last winter in the “Forward,” a Jewish newspaper in New York, pleading for donations to help pay for what threatened to be a long trial. Even if they had recovered the Degas, the Goodmans were prepared to sell it to cover those expenses. In 1995, when the Goodmans located the pastel, Mr Searle was offering it for sale through Margo Schab for $1.2 million. The new appraisal will determine whether notoriety boosts value.

Some forty paintings that the Gutmanns once owned have never been traced, although an unrecovered Botticelli portrait from the collection sold at Sotheby’s last year to a Denver mutual fund magnate—with Gutmann in the provenance. The family is now seeking to recover a Renoir painting, known as “Pear tree” or “Apple tree”, also seized in Paris by the Nazis, which has been in storage in London for the past twenty years. The Renoir was auctioned at Sotheby’s Parke Bernet in 1967.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Goodman case settled'