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Chicago Jewish family sues for painting looted by Nazis

JUF News
CHICAGO, March 26 (JTA) — Although efforts continue to mount for the return of Jewish property confiscated or stolen by the Nazis, a local lawsuit over a Degas painting has already become famous. The 1890 pastel in question, “Landscape with Smokestacks,” is now owned by local philanthropist Daniel Searle, former head of G.D. Searle and Company and a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. The lawsuit, filed by brothers Nick and Simon Goodman, together with their aunt Lili Gutmann, claims that the Nazis stole the impressionist painting 50 years ago from their grandfather Freidrich Gutmann, a wealthy Dutch banker who was killed in a concentration camp. Searle purchased the painting in 1987 from collector Emile Wolfe for $850,000. The lawsuit has raised difficult but unavoidable questions: How soon must someone who claims that their property was stolen reclaim it? And how much effort must people make to find their property to legitimize a future claim? Barring a settlement, a jury will have to answer those questions in the suit against Searle. Described by the Art Newspaper as “the most significant World War II art restitution case ever to reach a U.S. court,” the case has attracted broad media attention. Newspapers across the country have written about it, and the CBS news program “60 Minutes” recently broadcast a segment on it. It appears now that the case will indeed head to trial, according to Barry Rosen, a Chicago attorney representing the Goodmans. The trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 3. The focus has shifted somewhat since the case was initially publicized. Originally, Searle disputed the Goodmans’ claims that “Landscape” was the same painting that had belonged to their family. He has since acknowledged that it did belong to Freidrich Gutmann “sometime in the 1930s,” said Howard Trienens, Searle’s attorney. The parties are now working to establish specific facts and the authenticity of certain documents, some of them government records, that stand to play a large role in the case. The Goodmans maintain that Freidrich Gutmann sent “Landscape” to a Paris art dealer for safekeeping before he was killed, and that the Nazis stole it from there. Much of that claim relies upon the document that lists the history, transfers, and sales of the painting. Although the document does not show Gutmann’s name, Rosen said it lists Hans Wendland, who was arrested after the war and gave statements disclosing his role as a Nazi collaborator and detailing his methods of transporting stolen art through Switzerland. The document also lists two undated transfers that occurred between 1932 and 1951, one of them to Wendland in Paris. Trienens questions whether Wendland was a known Nazi collaborator, and says that even if he was, it surely was not known in 1987, the time of Searle’s purchase. The Art Institute of Chicago, which advised Searle in the purchase, has declined to comment because litigation is pending, according to Eileen Harakal, the institute’s director of public affairs. Rosen said that regardless of whether Searle knew about Wendland, the Goodmans’ claim is not affected. But Trienens maintains that even if the painting was stolen, the statute of limitations concerning the Goodmans’ claim has expired. Before Searle acquired the painting from Wolfe, it was displayed in museums and listed in a Degas catalog published in Massachusetts in 1968. “You can’t sit on your rights” and decide years later to claim that property was stolen, Trienens said. But Rosen said documentation exists that shows the Goodmans’ extensive effort over decades to find the painting in Europe. Most of that search was conducted by the Goodmans’ late father, Bernard Gutmann, in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, when information was scarce and hard to obtain, Rosen said. Nick and Simon Goodman did not know of the painting’s existence until after their father died. They began searching immediately upon learning of it and when they saw the painting in a catalog from a 1994 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they contacted Searle. Rosen said the court must consider what can fairly have been expected of Bernard and Lili Gutmann, two young people searching Europe with sparse resources, whose efforts displayed “an extraordinary picture of diligence over a lengthy period of time in the face of very significant obstacles.” If Searle loses the case, he could make a claim against the gallery from which he bought the painting for having sold him stolen art. The gallery could then go back to the owner who preceded it and make the same claim.