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Edgar Degas
Landscape with
with plunder
by Judd Tully

A chilling tale of Nazi war loot, a murdered Jewish couple and a small Degas pastel currently owned by a prominent American collector has surfaced in a recently filed federal court case. Embracing complex issues involving the intersection of the international art market and the Holocaust, the lawsuit is destined to attract worldwide attention. The art work in question, Landscape with Smokestacks, a 1890 monotype with pastel by Edgar Degas, looked perfectly respectable when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum's 1994 exhibition, "Degas Landscapes." On loan from Chicago collectors Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Searle, the work reproduced beautifully in Richard Kendall's accompanying full-color catalogue. That impression faded some last July, after a civil action complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, charging that the Degas was actually the property of the heirs of Friedrich Bernhard Gutmann and his wife, Louise Gutmann, a prominent Jewish couple killed by the Nazis during the World War II. The Searles' answer to the complaint is due Sept. 27. It is expected that their legal team, headed by Ralph E. Lerner of Sidley & Austin, will also request a change of venue to Chicago, where the Searles reside. According to court papers filed by Nick and Simon Goodman, grandsons of the Gutmanns, and Lili Vera Collas Gutmann, the Gutmann's surviving daughter, the Degas pastel had been acquired in the late 1920s from Helmuth Lutjens, the Dutch agent for the Berlin art dealer Paul Cassierer & Co., and had hung in the Gutmann's elegant drawing room in Heemstede, Holland, until 1939. At that time, fearing for their lives, the family sent the Degas and a number of other works for safekeeping to Paul Graupe & Cie, a prominent antiques dealer in Paris. Other art was sold by the family to finance their escape, according to Thomas R. Kline of Andrews & Kurth, one of the Goodman's lawyers. Attempting to flee Holland, both Friedrich and Louise were detained by the Gestapo while en route to Italy. Louise perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and her husband was believed to have been beaten to death after refusing to sign a document transferring some of the family's valuable possessions to the Third Reich (Gutmann was an heir to the founder of the Dresden Bank). After the war, the Gutmann children, Bernard (now deceased) and his sister Lili, learned that the Graupe & Cie. had deposited the works in a Paris warehouse that was subsequently looted by Hitler's infamous Rosenberg Action Team, the Nazi bureau dedicated to stealing Jewish property. The Gutmann heirs then notified Dutch, British and German authorities and Interpol about their stolen art works. Exhaustive investigations on the Paris looting frenzy undertaken after the War by the ERR (the German acronym for the Rosenberg gang) by French authorities and others verified the Gutmann pictures had indeed been stolen by the ERR. In an exclusive phone interview in Florence, Lili Gutmann, a retired freelance writer, told ArtNet she had photographic evidence that the monotype had been stored at the Louvre's Jeu du Paume and that the museum's wartime curator, Rose Valland, who was a double-agent spying on the Germans, had documented the stolen art works. The museum was used as a storehouse for the ERR. The alleged paper trail of the Degas begins in Paris after its interval at the Louvre. It connects the pastel to Hans Wendland, a Berlin art dealer and Nazi collaborator who operated in Paris during the German occupation, and then to Hans Fankhauser, a Swiss dealer, reportedly notorious for handling Nazi art loot. (Swiss laws on property are markedly different from many countries, in that good title can be transferred to a new owner even if an object is stolen). Significantly, the provenance (list of ownership) for the Searle Degas, according to court papers, mirrors the Gutmann monotype. According to court papers, Searle, the former chairman of the giant pharmaceutical firm, G.D. Searle & Co, acquired Landscape with Smokestacks in 1987 for $850,000 through New York private dealer Margo Pollins Schab. Schab, a well-known expert in late 19th- and early 20th-century art who has sold important Degas monotypes in the past, was representing Emile Wolf, a major New York collector who reportedly acquired the work in 1951 from Fankhauser in Basel. Schab, who declined to verify that she was involved in the transaction, said she had never heard of either Wendland or Fankhauser until a month ago and that Mr. Wolf "was an absolutely world-class collector." Referring to the Degas, Schab said, "everybody knew where it was." About the monotype and the legal and art- historical issues involved, Schab speculated that "the whole thing is such a can of worms, it's going to be impossible to sort out." The elderly and frail Wolf, through a caretaker at his residence, declined comment. One issue the jury may rule on--if the case goes that far--is whether the Gutmann Degas is the same as the Searle Degas. Monotypes, by nature, are unique works. but many artists make more than a single impression from the oil-based metal plate. Degas used this process and then added varying amounts of pastel to the image, sometimes totally obscuring the monotype base. So far, there is only one known Landscape with Smokestacks recorded and illustrated in P.A. Lemoisne's exhaustive catalogue raisonné published in 1946 and in Eugenia P. Janis' Degas Monotypes: Essay, Catalogue and Checklist, published in 1968 on the occasion of the exhibition at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass. The Goodmans/Gutmanns were apparently unaware of both of these important art historical volumes, which are literally bibles to the trade. "Even if it is the same monotype, which we don't know yet," said one member of the defense team, "they (the Goodmans) couldn't have been looking too hard for it." One of the crucial issues on property claims involve the legal concept of "due diligence," which requires that the aggrieved owner make a demand for return of his or her property in a timely fashion. It was only last December, shortly after the Goodman brothers and their aunt discovered the catalogue entry for the Searle Degas in the Kendall catalogue, that they queried Searle by letter and demanded the pastel's return. Searle, through his attorneys, refused the family's demand later that month, which set the stage for the lawsuit. The fact that the plaintiffs did not file the suit until this year could be a factor in the case. "The diligence of the victim does not have to be perfect," said attorney Klein, "it's only required to be reasonable. They did what a victim ought to do." Judd Tully covers the international art market for a variety of publications, includingArt & Auction to The Washington Post.