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For nearly 80 years, a family of Viennese Holocaust survivors searched for a painting looted from them by the Nazis.Last month — for the first time since 1938 — family members saw the painting up close, in a private showing at Sotheby's in Paris. They...

Bittersweet ending: A Nazi-looted painting resurfaces but is not returned

For nearly 80 years, a family of Viennese Holocaust survivors searched for a painting looted from them by the Nazis.Last month — for the first time since 1938 — family members saw the painting up close, in a private showing at Sotheby's in Paris. They...

Bittersweet ending: A Nazi-looted painting resurfaces but is not returned

For nearly 80 years, a family of Viennese Holocaust survivors searched for a painting looted from them by the Nazis.

Last month — for the first time since 1938 — family members saw the painting up close, in a private showing at Sotheby's in Paris. They were struck by the "brilliance" of the work, said one of them, thrilled that the painting had been found and saddened that they never will own it again.

Their journey to that moment, on April 25, spanned three generations, two continents and considerable personal and financial costs.

"It's a bittersweet situation," says Stephen Tauber, whose late wife, Erika (Graf) Tauber, was one day shy of her sixth birthday when she, her twin sister Eva (Graf) Glaser and their parents fled Vienna for their lives after the Nazis' annexation of Austria.

"The proper resolution from my point of view, of course, would have been the return of the painting to the heirs," adds Stephen Tauber, who lives in the Boston area. "That was not achievable."

Indeed, as often is the case in looted Holocaust-era art, even after establishing the provenance of an artwork, the aggrieved owners may receive a measure of recompense but not the beloved — and often valuable — cultural object taken from them.

Art Recovery International

Michele Marieschi painting.

Michele Marieschi painting.

(Art Recovery International)

Italian artist Michele Marieschi's "La Punta della Dogana e san Giorgio Maggiore," painted 1739-40, will be auctioned by Sotheby's in London on July 5 at an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 pounds (about $648,000 to $908,000).

The epic story of the family's search for the Marieschi was reported first by the Chicago Tribune in 2002, when the heirs found themselves in a strange situation: A former appraiser for Christie's auction house had seen a photograph of the looted painting in the international edition of the Art Newspaper. An ad placed by the Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen art, carried this heading: "Buyer Beware — Holocaust Losses." The caption noted that the family's paintings "were seized by the Gestapo in 1940 and were probably auctioned off."

The appraiser, Charles Beddington, remembered having seen the work in the French home of a British businessman in the late 1980s. But Christie's, citing confidentiality practices, would not allow Beddington to reveal the identity of the holder of the work to the family seeking it. Christie's London office did allow Beddington to contact the holder directly, which he did via registered letter on Aug. 18, 1998.

"Two American ladies have given the Art Loss Register convincing evidence that the picture was taken from their father by the Gestapo in 1940," wrote Beddington in the letter, a copy of which the family shared with the Tribune in 2002.

"As far as I am aware, you have legal title to the picture, and, if so, you need not feel obliged to take any action. However, in the present situation the painting might prove difficult to sell, should you ever wish to do so. The only way to resolve this would be to make some sort of agreement with the American ladies (offering them part of the proceeds might obviously be a solution)."

Beddington received no response, so he placed a phone call to the holder, to no avail.

"I've done all that I can do," Beddington told the Tribune in 2002, at which time he no longer was a Christie's employee but worked as a freelance consultant to the firm.

"I have no illusions about auction houses being sensitive to a higher cause," he added.

At the time, Christie's explained its position in a statement to the Tribune:

"While in no way underestimating the seriousness of the claim, we are not in a position, without the consent of the owner, or an order of the court, to disclose his identity or the location of a work of art."

Interestingly, Christie's used the term "owner," though ownership was in dispute.

"It still seems to us," continued the Christie's statement, "that a balancing of competing interests has to take place in situations such as this, and if agreement cannot be reached, a court of competent jurisdiction will have to adjudicate."

In fact, Erika Tauber and Eva Glaser already had filed a "John Doe" lawsuit against the anonymous holder in U.S. District Court in Boston and had subpoenaed Christie's for information on the holder's identity. Christie's argued that U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction over this European matter.

So an organization called the Jewish Community of Vienna — working on Erika Tauber and Eva Glaser's behalf — filed suit in London in the High Court of Justice, Chancery Division, sometime after Oct. 25, 2004. Christie's subsequently revealed the name of the holder to the Jewish Community of Vienna, says Stephen Tauber.

The Jewish Community of Vienna contacted the holder, but the organization's representative told Tauber "that they had tried everything, but it had not been possible to engage with the holder," says Tauber. "He would not even meet with a representative."

The possessor in 2002 is now dead, and the painting is held by a trust that contacted Christopher A. Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, based in Venice, Italy. The heirs were contacted in September of 2015.

"I will definitely say it was not an easy mediation," says Marinello.

"There was a very strong legal argument for the possessor in the U.K. and in their current jurisdiction. They've had the painting since the early 1950s and, of course, hired independent counsel to provide various legal opinions.

"And then you had the very strong moral claim of the Graf family."

Andrew Tauber, son of Stephen and Erika Tauber and an attorney, represented the family in the negotiations and felt a range of emotions.

"I would say it was simultaneously exciting and frustrating," he says.

"Exciting that this painting that my grandparents had purchased and loved and lost and sought was finally within reach again.

"Frustrating that it was fairly clear from the outset that we weren't actually going to get the painting back. There would only be some sort of compromise with the current possessors, who had physical possession of the painting and, therefore, tremendous negotiating leverage in the situation. ... The only realistic outcome was a negotiated financial settlement."

Negotiations began in September 2015.

That's 78 years after Heinrich "Henry" Graf and his wife, Anna Maria "Anny" Graf, bought the painting in December 1937. Before fleeing Vienna on Aug. 30, 1938, the Grafs left their property in Austria with Schenker & Co., a storage firm. The family spent the next three years ranging across Europe, at the same time negotiating with the Nazis to get their property back.

When they arrived in suburban New York, in 1941, they'd already paid thousands of dollars to the Nazis in hopes of reclaiming their property, according to family documents. But they received none of their art, silver, rugs and other precious items.

After the war, the family contacted Schenker & Co., and received this response:

"We would like to inform you that the furnishings of Mr. Heinrich Graf, engineer, were confiscated by the Secret State Police (Gestapo) on Nov. 16, 1940," a Schenker representative wrote on Feb. 20, 1946. "As far as we know, the furnishings have been sold by public auction."

In addition to the Marieschi, the cache included "Oil Portrait of a Man" and "Oil Portrait of a Woman," both by Umberto Veruda, whose subjects were the twins' maternal grandparents. (Those works are still missing).

This might have been the end of the family's quest but for the remarkable fact that the gallery that originally sold the Marieschi to the Grafs had made a photo of the painting, and it had survived the war.

What happened to the painting between 1940 and 1952 "is not known," according to an announcement from Sotheby's and Art Recovery International. "However, in 1952 it was acquired by Edward Speelman, who purchased the painting from Henry James Alfred Spiller (1890-1966), a frequent purchaser at auction during WWII."

Says Stephen Tauber in an email, "What rankles me the most about the entire tale of the Marieschi painting never returning to the 1937 purchasers (nor their heirs) is the fact that although it was on the public record as having been stolen, neither dealer who sold it in 1952-53 performed due diligence concerning the painting's provenance."

After this remarkable journey, the family and the trust of the former possessor came to terms in December 2016. The terms of the agreement are confidential.

Erika Tauber died in 2012 at age 79, never having seen a resolution to this case.

"It's been such a long, long, long story," says Eva Glaser, 84, her twin sister.

Last month, Stephen Tauber and his son, Andrew, traveled to Paris to see the Marieschi, at last.

"It is a magnificent painting," says Stephen Tauber. "The brilliance of the color was striking. It was very impressive. I can understand why my parents-in-law fell in love with it."

Had Erika Tauber lived to see this day, "It would have brought closure to a small chapter in (her) life story," says Andrew Tauber, her son. "It would have restoked the feelings of closeness to her parents, just because it's a tangible connection to them."

To see the work "was really moving for me, because this is something that had hung in my grandparents' apartment," adds Andrew Tauber. "I was very close to my grandparents growing up. I spent a lot of time in their apartment in Queens, and my love of art was sparked by my grandmother. … I have this connection in my mind between my grandparents and art.

"And there's this particular painting that they liked so much that they bought it. It was expensive at the time. It brought me in some sense closer to them, seeing it right here in front of me.

"I suspect my mother would have had similar emotional reactions."

To Eva Glaser, who could not undertake a trip to Paris, the painting also holds great personal value.

"It represents the old world," says Glaser, who lives in the Boston area. "It certainly represents my parents' interest in fine art. And I guess they passed it on to me in a way, because in college I was a fine arts major. So that's all connected in a way.

"I would be so happy if the painting still belonged to us, and one of our children could have it in their home, or it would be in a local museum."

But some sense of resolution is better than none, all agree, and perhaps there's a lesson to be learned in one family's travails.

"The message is clear that these claims will never go away," says Marinello, the Art Recovery International CEO.

"I want possessors of known Nazi (looted) works to come out of the shadows, stop hiding, stop pretending that the problem will just go away, and deal with it.

"It's not about the money," he adds. "It's recapturing a part of a life that was totally taken away from these people."

These looted artworks are symbols of that vanished world.

Which helps explains why the Graf heirs have expended so many decades and so much emotion trying to reclaim them.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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