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Return of Nazi-Looted Art Proves a Good History Lesson

by Tom Tugend

April 13, 2009 | 2:42 pm

School of Tintoretto, Alvisuis Vercramin Photo ©Hearst Castle®/California State Parks

School of Tintoretto, Alvisuis Vercramin Photo ©Hearst Castle®/California State Parks

LOS ANGELES—It was a mix of state ceremony, mutual admiration fest, education forum and Seder symbolism when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who orchestrated the event, returned two Nazi-looted paintings to the grandchildren of the original Jewish owners, on behalf of the State of California.

The setting last Friday (4/10) was the historic Leland Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, usually the venue for feting heads of state, and the honorees included the lawyer who had FILED THE CLAIM[sued California] to recover the Italian Renaissance paintings FROM THE STATE.

The story began in 1935, when the Hitler regime confiscated the paintings of premier Berlin art dealers, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, and sold them at a forced Judenauktion, or Jew auction.

The Oppenheimers had previously fled to France where, after the Nazi conquest, Jakob died in poverty while Rosa perished in Auschwitz.

Following the forced 1935 auction, three of the paintings were subsequently bought by press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who apparently knew nothing of their provenance. He added the new acquisitions to his collection of 25,000 paintings at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, along California’s central coast.

In the 1950s, the 165-room castle was turned over to the California State Parks Department and now welcomes over a million visitors a year.

Two decades ago, Paris-based attorney Eva Sterzing started tracking paintings from the former Oppenheimer collection at European and American museums and eventually discovered the three paintings by 16th century Venetian artists at the Hearst Castle.

After thoroughly researching the evidence for two years, lawyers for the state parks and attorney general offices validated the claim of the Oppenheimer heirs.

However, rather than quietly arrange for a transfer, both sides agreed on an unusual deal to derive a permanent history lesson form the fate of the Oppenheimer family and their paintings.

The lesson unfolded, and was transmitted live on the governor’s web site, as Schwarzenegger and state officials met with two Oppenheimer grandchildren, Peter Bloch of Boynton, Florida and Inge Blackshear of Buenos Aires.

Sharing the stage were two oil on canvas paintings on easels, about to be returned to the Oppenheimer family after a 74-year interval.

One painting shows an elderly bearded man with a book and necklace of shells, thought to be by Giovanni Cariani, the other a portrait of a nobleman, attributed to an unnamed student of Jacopo Tintoretto.

Placed separately was the third painting, a photographic reproduction of “Venus and Cupid,” attributed to the school of another Venetian master, Paris Bordone. Through an amicable agreement, the original of this painting will remain on display at the Hearst Castle, together with reproductions of the two returned paintings.

“As of today, guides will be instructed to tell visitors about the history of the paintings and about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum.

Attorney Bradly (ok) Torgan, one of the main state negotiators with the Oppenheimer heirs, drew a more personal lesson from the experience. After conducting a second Seder at his home the preceding night, Torgan saw a parallel between the return of the painting and “the story of the Exodus, which is a commemoration of the Jews’ flight, of liberation, and, ultimately, the journey home.”

Bloch, in accepting the two paintings, thanked the State of California on behalf of nine heirs on three continents and expressed the hope that “other states will follow suit.”

Throughout the 30-minute ceremony, Schwarzenegger served as the designated cheerleader, again and again calling for rounds of applause to thank the Oppenheimer heirs – and even their lawyer – for their generosity and good will.

In an interview afterwards, Schwarzenegger explained his personal interest in the case and the purpose of the preceding ceremony.
“I was born two years after World War II in Austria, where there were atrocities and crimes against Jews, who were robbed of everything,” Schwarzenegger said.

“So I am of the next generation and we have to be different. We have to try to give back what we can.”
The governor is well aware of his star power as body builder, Hollywood actor and politician.

“My being here will be reported in the media and whatever California does is widely copied, so we’re sending a great signal to the rest of the world,” he said.
Neither Bloch nor other participants would talk about the dollar value of the two returned paintings, but given the number of far-flung heirs, the paintings will most likely be sold and the proceeds divided among the heirs, Bloch said.

Hearst Castle is the 25th American museum to have negotiated settlements over Nazi-looted art during the past decade.

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