While the Nazi regime famously looted Europe of its great works of art during World War II for personal use, Adolf Hitler and his henchmen actually paid for some of those masterpieces before they were supposedly returned to their rightful owners by the U.S. military after the conflict.
Yet a Houston attorney and his law firm have filed a lawsuit in a South Carolina federal court against the Dutch government seeking restitution for 143 valuable paintings on behalf of an American heir to Jewish art dealers who were forced to sell the art to the Nazis. The paintings are now hanging in some of The Netherlands’ finest museums.
Among the paintings in dispute, according to the petition in Bruce Berg v. Kingdom of The Netherlands, are works by Dutch “Old Masters” such as Ferdinand Bol, Pieter Claesz, Jan Steen, and others from the school of Rembrandt.
Plaintiff Bruce Berg, whose grandfather and great uncle ran the Dutch art gallery Firma D. Katz, alleges the artworks were sold or traded under duress to the Nazis between mid-1940 and 1942 and were destined for Hitler’s future “Führermuseum” in Linz, Austria, or for a massive art collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering.
Most of the money from the sale of the art was used by the Katz family to keep them from being transported to concentration camps and to facilitate their escape from occupied Netherlands, according to the complaint.
The paintings were eventually returned to the Dutch government after the war by the U.S. military, yet the Katz family’s claims to the art were largely denied by Dutch officials who determined the Jewish art dealers’ sale of the art constituted “ordinary sales,” according the complaint.
Joel Androphy, a name partner in Houston’s Berg & Androphy who represents Berg (the law firm is of no relation to their client), said the claim was filed in a U.S. federal court after his family mounted a futile effort to reclaim the paintings in Europe—only one of the disputed paintings was ever returned to the family. In addition to the Kingdom of The Netherlands, the museums that house the art including The Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, are also named as defendants.
“The problem is you cannot fight it in the foreign countries,” Androphy said of the international dispute. “In The Netherlands they consider these national treasures and they have a vested interest in keeping them. When the U.S. returned the art to the countries at the end of the war, it was supposed to be an orderly restoration to the families. But that never happened.’’
The defendants have not yet filed an answer to the complaint and have no attorneys listed as representing them, according to court records.
Androphy said that Goering even paid a personal visit to Firma D. Katz, accompanied by armed guards, to inspect and select the paintings he bought from the art gallery.
“They wanted to have an appearance of legitimacy to it all. That was the subterfuge here, so they paid money for the art,” Androphy said of Nazi officials. “And when Goering pays a visit to you and offers you a certain amount of money for art, you can’t say no. There are some relatives that are alive today that remember Goering showing up in the art studio and the family was terrified.’’