Courtauld defeats Jewish heirs to keep Rubens

December 20 2010

Image of Courtauld defeats Jewish heirs to keep Rubens

In a strange ruling, the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel has concluded that the heirs of a Jewish banker cannot claim ownership of a Rubens sketch sold under the Nazis. Herbert Gutmann sold the picture at Graupe auction house in 1934, a year after Hitler assumed full control of Germany. Austrian authorities, on the other hand, have previously decided that Gutmann’s paintings sold at Graupe should be returned to his heirs.

The case revolved around whether Gutmann sold the Rubens at its market value because of debts he was obliged to repay legitimately, or whether he was forced to sell the picture because of anti-semitism.

The basic facts of the case are these:

  • Gutmann was the son of the founder of Dresdner Bank, and a director of the board. His family were Jewish converts. Dresdner Bank was part nationalised in 1931, and Gutmann forced to resign and repay certain debts the bank claimed he owed it.
  • In April 1934, still needing to repay debts, he consigned his art collection, including the Rubens, to Graupe auction. Gutmann’s heirs contend that the debts were fictitious, and directed maliciously at a registered Jew by what was then a Nazi controlled bank.
  • The Rubens made 8,100 Reichsmarks, above the estimate of 5,000 marks.
  • In June 1934, Gutmann, a registered Jew, was arrested as part of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. He fled to Britain, where he died in 1942. His wife and brother were murdered by the Nazis.
  • The Rubens ended up in the hands of Kurt von Schroder, a prominent Nazi by the end of the war, and then, via Sotheby’s, to Count Antoine von Seilern, who bequeathed it to the Courtauld.
  • The Courtauld claimed that Gutmann’s debts were legitimate. Therefore, argues the museum, the sale was not forced. The Spoliation Panel agreed.

However, it appears the Panel did not adequately take into account the general atmosphere of prejudice against Jews and opponents of the Nazis at the time of the sale, and, crucially, whether Gutmann had any chance of realising the picture’s full market value.

Graupe auction, for example, was notorious for forced 'Judenauktion', and indeed the auctioneers bragged to potential bidders that for the Gutmann sale estimates were lower than for comparable sales outside Germany.

"Hitler's Willing Bankers"

Perhaps most importantly, the Panel does not seem to have considered the fact that Dresdner Bank was notorious for implementing anti-Jewish and Nazi policies, particularly against its own staff. Dresdner was Himmler’s favoured bank. A recent seven year study into Dresdner’s Nazi-era history concluded that "the bank took part early on in the Third Reich's policy of confiscating Jewish property and wealth".

Gutmann was a close associate of the Nazi’s political opponents, including Walther Rathenau, a former Foreign Minister, and Kurt von Schleicher, a former Chancellor. The Spoliation Advisory Panel also relates that "In the Reichstag elections of November 1932 a Nazi propaganda poster had described him [Gutmann] as a profiteer and a Jewish manipulator". But the panel then makes the following illogical statement; "However, in March/April 1934 [Gutmann] had no reason to suppose he would be arrested because of his political past."

This not only goes against the directly available evidence, but, one could argue, betrays an ignorance of the situation in Germany at the time. After Hitler’s assumption of the Chancellorship in January 1933, any political opponent of the Nazis knew they faced attack or arrest. Hitler’s purges of his own party had shown that he tolerated no opposition.

Moreover, Jews faced all sorts of restrictions on what they could or could not do, especially in relation to financial matters. The sale of the Rubens, therefore, could not possibly have been conducted in a manner that Gutmann would have chosen had he been free to dispose his assets as he wished. The panel agrees that Gutmann was not able to sell the picture where he wanted it, but concludes that "The fact that Gutmann was effectively unable to sell the work in London does not therefore mean that selling it in Germany was financially disadvantageous to him." I do not believe the Courtauld’s claim that the Graupe sale realised the picture’s full value, and nor do I believe the Panel's assessment of relative Rubens prices at the time. 

Immediately after the war, Gutmann’s family claimed compensation from the German state for punitive taxes levied by the Nazis, and have continued to successfully claim back his property. In 1992, they regained control of his large house in Potsdam. Last year, Vienna’s council decided that they could also claim his pictures, and returned a work by the Austrian artist Hans Makart, which had been sold in the Graupe sale. It seems to me that the UK Government should do the same for the Courtauld’s Rubens.

Gutmann's granddaughter has written a touching article on the circumstances of his dismissal from the bank.

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