The descendants of a Jewish gallery owner who left behind a prized Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painting during his escape from the Nazis in 1938 have accused Sotheby’s of providing a misleading ownership history ahead of its 2019 sale.
In 2019, Sotheby’s said in a statement that it did not known the ownership history of the painting, St. Francis of Paola Holding a Rosary, Book, and Staff. The auction catalog only stated that it came from a “distinguished private collection” and had once been owned by the Galerie Wolfgang Böhler in Bensheim, Germany. But a petition filed in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Friday claims that the painting actually passed through the hands of Julius Böhler, an unrelated art dealer in Munich who was accused by the American government in 1946 as being “implicated in art looting activities.”
The three heirs of the Austrian gallery owner, Otto Fröhlich, said in the filing that Sotheby’s intentionally obscured the work’s true provenance to aid the sale, thus “perpetuating the very cycle of injustice and exploitation that began in 1938 and that the international and national restitution laws and policies were designed to prevent.”
Sotheby’s has refuted the allegations, telling the New York Times last week that the 2019 provenance attribution was a “human error.” In a statement, the auction house said that it ordered new provenance research after being contacted by Fröhlich’s heirs and, in the process, identified the original owner of the painting who faced Nazi persecution, Adele Fischel. Under international law, the descendants of Fischel may even have grounds to pursue its ownership.
Sotheby’s added in its statement that it is “committed to reaching a just and amicable solution in the restitution of this work to its rightful heirs,” however, “additional research and evidence is needed to ascertain who the correct claimant should be in this instance, with current evidence supporting a possible claim by the heirs of [Fischel].”
The painting is believed to have been painted sometime in the 1730s. It was valued in the 2019 Sotheby’s catalog between $70,000 and $100,000.
The Times reported that records maintained by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum state that a Viennese woman named Adele Fischel was deported to the Theresienstadt camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where she was killed.
Fröhlich allegedly purchased the Tiepolo in 1938 from Fischel, which the petition filed by Fröhlich’s heirs maintain was made “in good faith” and was not looted. However, they maintain that circumstances “forced” Fröhlich to transfer the Tiepolo to another gallery before fleeing Vienna for Britain. If not for Nazi persecution, Fröhlich would not have closed his gallery or sold the painting at a price well below its market value, according to the filing. Additionally, documents compiled by the heirs show that Fröhlich attempted to recover the painting after the war.
Fröhlich’s heirs have petitioned Sotheby’s to reveal the names of the parties involved in the 2019 sale, which is typically against the auction house’s policy.