Arts & Culture

Court sides with MFAH in dispute over painting once sold to Hitler’s art collector

The grandchildren of the original owner of Bernardo Bellotto’s “The Marketplace at Pirna,” argued that their ancestor was coerced into selling the painting.


The Marketplace at Pirna

A decades-long battle over ownership of a painting once sold to Adolf Hitler's art collector was recently resolved in favor of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

"The Marketplace at Pirna" by Bernardo Bellotto has been a part of the museum's collection since 1961. However, the grandchildren of Max Emden, a German Jewish art collector, claim that he was coerced into selling the piece to Hitler's art collector Karl Haberstock in the 1930s.

The family argued they should have ownership of the painting as his heirs, but a ruling by a federal judge earlier this month will keep the painting at MFAH.

The Monuments Men and Women, who work to return "cultural treasures" to their rightful owners, recovered the painting along with two others by Bellotto following World War II. Emden had sold all three to Haberstock in June of 1938 for 60,000 Swiss francs.

Monuments Men Foundation Chairman Robert Edsel, a guest on Tuesday's Houston Matters, said the group sent the painting to the Netherlands after the Dutch government claimed in 1946 that they were searching for it.

However, there are "multiple versions" of a Bellotto painting under the same name, Edsel said.

"(The Monuments Men and Women) erroneously thought that one of these three paintings of Emden's was the painting that the Netherlands was looking for," Edsel told Houston Matters.

The Dutch government “restituted” that painting to art dealer Hugo Moser, who claimed the painting was his, MFAH wrote in a July 2021 statement. But Edsel said Moser was mistaken, and when he realized the mix up, "fraudulently" removed labels from the back of the painting and sold it to a collector who later donated it to MFAH.

"They acquired it as a consequence of a clerical error, compounded by a fraud," Edsel told Houston Matters.

But Thaddeus Stauber, MFAH legal counsel, told Houston Matters that the museum is justified in its possession of the painting, and that the sale was not made under duress.

Stauber said that when the claim by Emden's heirs was brought to the museum's attention in 2007, he and Laurie Stein — a specialist in World War II-era provenance research — found evidence that their ancestor had left Germany in the 1920s and moved to an island in Switzerland where he housed his art collection. Emden initiated and conducted the sale of "The Marketplace at Pirna" to Haberstock through Jewish Gallerist Anni Caspari, museum officials said.

While Stauber acknowledged Emden may have felt some level of stress in Germany during Hitler's rule, he claims that Emden did not face the same level of pressure while in Switzerland and that it was his decision to sell.

"After the war, we discovered that Mr. Emden’s son had submitted for claims of property that was lost in Germany, but had made no claims to these particular artworks," Stauber said.

U.S. District Court Judge Keith P. Ellison dismissed the suit on May 2 on the basis that the court could not interfere with the choices of other sovereign governments under the "Act of State" doctrine, referring to the role of the Dutch government in "mistakenly" returning it to Moser.

MFAH has maintained that Haberstock met Emden's asking price of 60,000 Swiss francs, which was received in Emden's Swiss bank account, and that no evidence of coercion has been confirmed.

Emden's heirs are permitted to appeal the U.S. federal court's decision or file another lawsuit in the future.