November 5, 2013

Kunsthaus Lempertz: The auction house used by the Beltracchi forgery gang, Cornelius Gurlitt, and for liquidating Jewish-owned art galleries during the Nazi-era

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Journalist Alison Smale wrote for The New York Times in Berlin in "Report of Nazi-Looted Trove Puts Art World in an Uproar" that the auction house Kunsthau Lempertz was surprised to discover more information about the million dollar Max Beckmann painting they had sold in 2011. These are the first three paragraphs of Ms. Smale's article:
BERLIN - There was no hint that the older man who called a couple of years back about selling a picture could be sitting on an unimaginable trove of art confiscated or banned by the Nazis. When the proffered work, "Lion Tamer" by the German artist Max Beckmann, was collected, the seller seemed to be a proper gentleman in Munich dispensing with a lone, dusty art gem at the end of his life. 
It was a "fantastic picture," recalled Karl-Sex Feddersen of the Cologne auction house Lempertz, who noted how pleased the auction house team was with the auction price: 864,000 euros, or $1.17 million. 
When he learned on Monday that the Beckmann seller, Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, had reportedly sat on hundreds of works, including art by Picasso and Matisse, that were confiscated under the Nazis or sold cheaply by owners desperate to flee Hitler, Mr. Feddersen was amazed. "Imagine!" he said, envisaging seeing and selling such a collection.
According to Catherine Hinkley of Bloomberg, Beckmann's "Lion Tamer" belonged to Alfred Flechtheim who's heirs settled with Cornelius Gurlitt before the Lempertz auction in October 2011.

Kunsthaus Lempertz  is described as one of the leading art auction houses in Europe. This Cologne auction house is associated with another story covered in the ARCA blog: the Beltracchi forgery case. In October 2011, Catherine Hinkley reported for Bloomberg that the convicted forger Wolfgang Beltracchi had used the Kunsthaus Lempertz:
The Cologne auction house Kunsthaus Lempertz said in January that it had sold five of the forgers' works. The authenticity of all of them "was confirmed by leading experts and some of them were subsequently shown in a number of museums." 
"My colleagues and I, like the whole art market, were deceived by the highly skilled and professional operations of the forgers," Lempertz chief executive Henrick Hanstein wrote in a letter to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in July.
Beltracchi and his accomplices were sentenced to 15 years in prison for selling $14 million in forged paintings.

In this radio interview with the BBC on November 4, Clarence Epstein of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project explains the role of the Lempertz auction house in Cologne during the Nazi-era. Max Stern, Epstein explains, inherited a gallery established by his father in 1913 in Dusseldorf.
When Max Stern entered the scene in 1934 he had about one year before he started receiving letters from the Chamber of Fine Art in Germany advising him that due to his Jewish persuasion he was no longer permitted to transact as an art dealer. For the following three years, Max Stern was forced, under duress, to liquidate his family gallery and effectively consign the final pieces from the gallery and family collection to an auction house in Cologne, Germany, called Lempertz, which at that time was transacting what was called "Jew sales" for what was the final act of business of the Gallery Stern in that city.

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