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Collector’s Heirs Ask Museum to Return Nazi-looted Painting

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The heirs of a prominent Jewish art collector are seeking to recover a Cubist masterpiece that was plundered by the Nazis and is now hanging in a major art museum in Paris.

The 1914 painting by Georges Braque, “The Guitar Player,” was looted by the Nazis in 1940, along with dozens of others, from the mansion of Alphonse Kann in the Paris suburb of Saint German en Laye.

The controversy over the painting is just one of several involving art works plundered by the Nazis — last month, the state of New York prevented the Museum of Modern Art from sending two paintings by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele back to Austria after two Jewish families claimed that they had been looted from them.

Kann, a collector of 20th-century art, had already fled to London when his collection was looted. He died in 1948.

Didier Schulman, a curator at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, where the Braque now hangs, said in an interview that the painting was a major work, but could not say how much it was worth today.

He also denied that the museum was trying to conceal the fact that the work had been plundered.

“We bought it in good faith. As soon as we bought it, we did some research and we realized it had belonged to Alphonse Kann. We mentioned that in our catalogue,” Schulman said.

As all transactions with the Nazis were declared null and void by the Allies in 1943, a 1942 exchange of the painting between the Nazis and an art dealer was illegal — and would seem to imply that the Braque should be returned to its rightful owners.

But Schulman said that the museum still has to “determine exactly what happened to it between 1942 and 1948 before returning it.”

What happened to the painting during that period is still unclear, but recent investigations by the Pompidou Center and Kann’s heirs have shed some light on a series of sales by brokers and collectors.

It appears that in 1942 the Nazis exchanged “The Guitar Player” — along with works by Matisse, Leger, Picasso and de Chirico — for an “Adoration of the Magi” by a German master.

The Nazis considered most modern art “degenerate” and usually bartered such works for art that corresponded to their Aryan ideal, often trading several modern works for a single painting by a Dutch or German master.

The Paris art dealer who received the painting in exchange for the “Adoration of the Magi” then sold the Braque, which had several owners before emerging at a 1948 exhibit with the mention “Collection of Andre Lefevre.”

Upon Lefevre’s death, it was sold at auction in 1965 to Heinz Berggruen, a German-American collector living in Paris. A Braque by the same name, but painted in 1911, hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1976, Berggruen lent the painting to the Pompidou Center, which bought it in 1981 for some $1.5 million with a loan from the French government.

Kann’s heirs have already recovered one Cubist painting from the Pompidou Center, “Landscape” by Albert Gleizes.

It was looted from Kann’s home at the same time as the Braque, but was returned to France from Germany right after the war.

Like hundreds of other looted works, it was temporarily entrusted to the French state museum network until its owner could be located.

The Kann family was able to prove ownership of the Gleizes after a lengthy search, which included delving into the Foreign Ministry archives, and the painting was returned to them in the summer of 1997.

But several works from Kann’s collection are still missing.

The French state museum directorate was criticized in a 1996 report by the country’s state spending watchdog for failing to try to seek out the owners of looted works.

The museums holding the works ran a spate of exhibits last spring in the hope that the owners would step forward and claim them.

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