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Art Theft

In his fine piece from Jan. 17 (click here to read), our colleague Alex Boyle introduces AAD readers to one of the least known but most prolific art plunderers of the 20th century: Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, a one-time colonel in East Germany’s secret police (the notorious “Stasi”). From his perch as Secretary of State for the Ministry of Foreign Trade, Schalck-Golodkowski was responsible during the 1970's and 1980's for raising hard currency to help the Deutsch Democratic Republic’s bankrupt Communist regime stay afloat. Among his many schemes was sending Stasi agents to confiscate valuable works of art from innocent East German collectors so he could put the items up for sale or auction in the West.

ALEXANDER SCHALCK-GOLODKOWSKIALEXANDER SCHALCK-GOLODKOWSKI

The front company he created to handle the art sales, Kunst & Antiquitäten GmbH, is known to have seized some 220,000 objects, including 10,000 paintings, between 1973 and 1989. Since the collapse of East Germany in 1990, efforts to recover those artworks for their original owners or for the owners’ heirs have been a tough slog. Each case has unique complications, not the least of which is finding out what became of the item after it was laundered through a series of auctions and gallery sales.

Here is an updated version of an article I wrote for The New York Times in November that describes one case now playing out in the German courts. The painting in question is a still-life by the Dutch Golden Age artist Adriaen Coorte (1665-1707), whose works have skyrocketed in value in the last decade. *** *** ***

A TERRIFYING DAWN RAID

 

Just after sunrise on a March morning in 1982, a pack of East German secret police agents pounded at the door of Helmuth Meissner, a 79-year-old Dresden art collector known for his keen eye and refined taste. Inside his small, cluttered apartment, 2,000 works of art that Mr. Meissner had assembled over a lifetime — delicate porcelains, Asian carvings, dozens of oil paintings — lined the walls and shelves. Outside on the street below, four blue unmarked trucks sat ready to be stuffed with Mr. Meissner’s prized possessions. Mr. Meissner’s wife, Johanna, would later recall the agents barging past her into her kitchen, hauling typewriters, large empty cartons, scales and tape measures – and even their own coffee makers. It was going to be a long day.

“I was so petrified, I needed to sit down,” Mrs. Meissner told her son, Konrad, not long before her death, when he tape recorded her recollections of the raid. “Then they started to make coffee, and went into all the rooms, and began to pack up everything and make lists and put little red stickers on things. … They told me I was not allowed to leave my apartment.” Mr. Meissner himself was out that morning responding to a summons from the local police station. It was a ruse to get him out of the apartment lest he make a public ruckus, and when he got home a few hours later and saw the raid still underway, he vehemently objected. To silence him, the Stasi carted him off to a psychiatric hospital and portrayed him as an enemy of the state.

Now, the tale of Mr. Meissner’s ordeal has resurfaced. His son, who is 76, is trying to reclaim what he says was one of the most valuable items seized from his father on that day more than three decades ago: a 1705 still-life of four chestnuts on a ledge by the Dutch artist Adriaen Coorte. He faces a drawn-out legal fight. In court filings in Munich, the New York City family that now has the painting says they purchased it 25 years ago, legally and in good faith, and with no understanding that it had been seized by the Stasi. They want a German judge to grant them a clear title.

The case, expected to go forward in a few months, will be an eye-opener in Germany because until very recently, few Germans realized that a covert art-confiscation program -- with its ugly echoes of Nazi-era looting -- had taken place in East Germany. Gilbert Lupfer, lead researcher for Dresden’s state art collection, explained that “it was very, very elaborate, and also very secret,” he said. “That’s the reason why it was not known in the G.D.R. (German Democratic Republic).”

That is changing, Mr, Lupfer said. A catalyst was the discovery in 2012 of 1,000 works stolen under the Nazis in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, a case that caused a sensation and prompted fierce criticism because the German government dragged its feet for years before raiding Mr. Gurlitt’s home.

“There is a huge public interest now in questions of provenance research and restitution in the context of the ‘Causa Gurlitt,’ ” said Mr. Lupfer, who is head of the department of research and scientific cooperation for at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. “One other reason may be the 25th anniversary of the German reunification in this year.” The Stasi program, according to Mr. Lupfer and other historians, was driven by simple financial desperation. East Germany’s economy was faltering, and its own currency, the ostmark, was too weak to be of much use in foreign trade. Selling art abroad through brokers in Western Europe guaranteed the government a steady stream of cash to purchase resources like oil and raw materials on global markets.

“People like the Meissners were seen as plums ripe for picking,” said Ulf Bischof, a German lawyer who represents Mr. Meissner’s son and specializes in restitution cases.

LEGALIZED ART PLUNDER

To depict the art seizures as legal, archival records show, the Stasi concocted a cold-blooded pretense: they declared that the targeted collectors were “art dealers” who owed as much as 90 percent back taxes on the value of their so-called stock. Since no East German could pay such ludicrous tax bills, which reached into the millions of marks, the Stasi would take 90 percent of their best objects instead. As Mr. Bischof put it: “Every little source to obtain hard currency was exploited to keep the communist regime alive. That a few collectors had to be ‘criminalized’ to ensure a steady supply of art was something the authorities did not care about.”

THE STASI FILES ... MORE TO COMETHE STASI FILES ... MORE TO COME

The shell company used to find buyers for the art and ship it abroad, known as Kunst & Antiquitäten, operated out of a Stasi-controlled business district in East Berlin called the Kommerzielle Koordinierung, or “commercial coordination,” which came to be known among East Germans as KoKo. The KoKo’s dealings under Mr. Schalck-Golodkowski also included illicit arms sales, deals to store contaminated waste from West Germany on East German soil, and the ransoming of political prisoners to the West. Altogether, the KoKo brought in $1 billion annually in hard currency; its art-exporting arm earned $40 million a year.

Too few claims have surfaced so far to draw conclusions as to whether people who lost items to the Stasi are having as hard a time recovering them as those families whose art was plundered by the Nazis. But within Germany, where the Stasi is vilified for having tormented its own citizens, and where most of its actions were declared illegal after reunification in 1990, Mr. Bischof said, the museums, auction houses and individuals he has approached on behalf of claimants have typically turned over items without litigation.

Thanks to the Stasi’s mania for documenting and archiving its actions, which included long, meticulous inventory sheets identifying what was taken from collectors like his father, Konrad Meissner has recovered a few objects of value. Helmuth Meissner lost a large collection of rare Meissen porcelain during the raid. In 2006, Mr. Bischof learned by scouring catalogues that Sotheby’s in London planned to auction one of the items, a delicate cabinet, for $300,000. Mr. Bischof quickly reached a deal with the consignor to share the proceeds with his client.

German officials are now discussing, Mr. Lupfer said, whether to add Stasi-confiscated items to Germany’s Lost Art Internet Database in Magdeburg, an online listing of cultural objects seized under the Nazis that has been used by many heirs of World War II victims to reclaim lost works. “Art looted under the Nazis remains our foremost issue,” Mr. Lupfer said. “But we must never forget about these objects illegally confiscated by the Communist government of the G.D.R.”

Mr. Bischof said the art seizures were indicative of the rot setting into the East German government as Communism disintegrated. “The East German State was absolutely desperate to generate hard currency because their products could not compete on the world market. The regime clutched at every straw as a source for West German marks or dollars to preserve itself.

A COORTE GOES TO COURT

stasi3"STILL LIFE WITH CHESTNUTS" FROM 1705, BY ADRIAEN COORTE RKD ARCHIVES / NETHERLANDS INSTITUTE FOR ART HISTORY

In the case of the still-life by Coorte, its possessor, June D. Weldon of Manhattan, appealed to a Munich civil court in August to uphold her title to the work and enjoin Konrad Meissner, who lives in Munich, from making any claims. Mrs. Weldon, who died in October 2014 at age 98, filed the suit after several years of fruitless negotiations between her attorneys and Mr. Bischof. After her death, her son and executor, James Weldon, told the Munich court he planned to continue the case.

Mrs. Weldon, an avid collector and a philanthropist whose generosity has been acknowledged by museums like the Frick Collection in New York and by Colonial Williamsburg, said in the court papers that if she indeed holds the same painting that was taken from Mr. Meissner’s wall, its seizure by the Stasi had been the lawful action of the sovereign government in power at the time.

Its removal and sale were “done under the color of law as a tax forfeiture proceeding,” said Mrs. Weldon’s New York lawyer, Anthony J. Costantini. “This is not like a Nazi like Goebbels taking something and placing it on his wall.”

Mr. Bischof counters that East Germany “violated its own laws” when it took away the Coorte and tens of thousands of other items from some 200 collectors. Its raid on the Meissner home, he said, came after weeks of spying and surveillance, and the scheme even had a code name – “Operation Enemy.” One Stasi document says “the goal is to make M.’s property available for the national budget.”

Sometimes the Stasi art squads descended to pathetic levels to acquire art for sale. By the mid-1980's, after the squads ran out of collectors to tax, they offered low-value ostmarks or simple household necessities to people who unknowingly owned an item or heirloom of high value to foreign collectors. Tapestries, family silver, vintage musical instruments and grandfather clocks were all carted away.

“When they grew really desperate,” Mr. Bischof said “they ripped up the medieval cobblestones from the streets and took the church relics and grabbed the old books from libraries.”

Like the Nazis, though, the Stasi left an exacting paper trail that has been of great use in helping researchers track the provenance of many items seized decades ago. Mr. Bischof said he used those records to track the chestnuts painting by Coorte, including a photograph taken by the Stasi during its 1982 raid that shows the painting hanging on a wall in the Meissners’ home.

The highly detailed records pertaining to the seizure of the Coorte show that the Stasi first tried to sell the painting, unsuccessfully, in Switzerland in 1984, shipping it to Lugano and then back into East Berlin. The painting was shipped to Amsterdam in 1988, the archives show. Later that year, according to Mr. Bischof, the painting was sold at auction by Christie’s in the Netherlands for $76,974. The buyer, David Koetser, a Swiss gallery owner, sold it the following year to Henry H. Weldon, Mrs. Weldon’s husband, for $145,000, according to Mr. Koetser’s records. His sales receipt called the work “Still Life with Four Chestnuts.”

CHRISTIE'S AMSTERDAM, SITE OF THE COORTE SALE 1988

stasi4CHRISTIE'S AMSTERDAM, SITE OF THE COORTE SALE 1988

At the time of the purchase, the Weldons had spent several decades amassing a robust collection of Dutch and Flemish masters. Their holdings were exhibited at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore in 1999. The catalogue for the exhibition, “An Eye for Detail,” said the Coorte painting had come from a private collection in the Netherlands and had been shown through Mr. Koetser’s gallery in Zurich, but it did not mention the Meissners, East Germany or the initial sale by Christie’s. Coorte is known to have painted between 80 and 100 works, most of them finely detailed still-lifes featuring simple harvest foods such as asparagus, peaches and strawberries. In the 1980's and 1990's, Coortes sold for $50,000 to $150,000, sales record show.

But in recent years his works have seen an explosion in impassioned interest and bidding. In December, at the Old Masters sale at Sotheby’s London, Coorte’s “Three Peaches on a Stone Ledge, With a Red Admiral Butterfly” set a record for the artist at $5.4 million, a million dollars above its high estimate.

There is no appraised value for the disputed chestnuts painting, but several Coortes created using the same technique — oil paint on paper affixed to a panel of wood — have drawn more than $2 million apiece at auction in the past five years. Those works, “Still Life of a Peach and Two Apricots” and “Still Life of Strawberries in an Earthenware Bowl,” sold for more than 10 times their presale estimates.

WHERE THINGS STAND

Mr. Bischof said he tracked the disputed painting to Mrs. Weldon in 2011 and sent her a poignant letter detailing the Stasi raid, the arrest of Helmuth Meissner, and Mr. Meissner’s confinement within a psychiatric facility, which a German state commission in 1997 called “a clear case of abuse or psychiatric treatment.” A letter Mr. Meissner wrote from custody in 1982, seeking his immediate release, said: “As a healthy human being I am kept here in a ward for alcoholics, psychos, suicides and idiots. Because of this indescribable inhumanity I am not in the best of health.”

His request was ignored by the Stasi, and Mr. Meissner emerged from imprisonment seven months later, broken and despondent. He died after German reunification having never reclaimed any items from his collection.

stasi5HELMUTH MEISSNER WITH HIS FAVOURITE PIECE: THE BIRNKRUG FROM THE 18TH CENTURY IS NOW PART OF THE DRESDEN PORCELAIN COLLECTION (PHOTO: PD)

Mr. Bischof also described to Mrs. Weldon the route the Coorte took after falling into Stasi hands. “Given the fate of Helmuth Meissner … we hope we can resolve this matter amicably and in an atmosphere of mutual trust and can avoid a bitter and lengthy dispute,” he wrote. Mr. Bischof has also obtained a photo the Stasi took of the confiscated chestnuts works and kept in the Meissner dossier. That photo shows a painting identical to the Coorte now possessed by the Weldons.

Nonetheless, the negotiations went nowhere. Instead, Mrs. Weldon’s lawyer, Mr. Costantini, filed the legal action in Munich, where Konrad Meissner lives, asking a judge to affirm her ownership. He asserted in his filing that nothing presented so far establishes Konrad Meissner’s ownership of the Coorte. Mr. Meissner, the lawsuit says, “bases his claims on legally incorrect points of view.”

In his brief, Mr. Costantini also suggested that perhaps the Meissner chestnuts painting simply resembles a different one in Mrs. Weldon’s collection. But the 2008 catalogue raisonné of Coorte’s paintings, by Quentin Buvelot, which is intended to be a full inventory of his works, does not list any other painting that features four chestnuts on a ledge which is dated to 1705.

Interestingly, Mrs. Weldon’s son James said earlier this month that the estate plans to sell off some of its Old Masters collection, including several works by Coorte, at Sotheby’s New York on April 22. But given the cloud on its title, said Jon Grouf, another lawyer for the Weldons, the chestnuts painting will not be included in any upcoming auction. As for the court case, Mr. Grouf said: “As things stand now, it’s going to trial – I don’t see any other outcome.”

Konrad Meissner, 76, said he is ready to go to court because he is sure the Weldon painting is the one he grew up with. “It is hard not to recall your parents had this work on the wall,” he said, “when you looked at it every day.”

 

Tom Mashberg

Editor’s note: Portions of this article, first appeared in the New York Times Article of November 27, 2014. 

First published on AAD, 27.01.2015

stasi6Stasi Motif

About the Author

Tom Mashberg

Tom Mashberg

Tom Mashberg is a regular contributor to The New York Times Culture section, focusing on art and antiquities theft and repatriation. In combination with Ralph Blumenthal, a veteran Times journalist, h...