N.Y. agency helps heirs recover art lost in Nazi era

Michael Berolzheimer sits in his den in Bavaria, Germany circa 1925. Berolzheimer, who was Jewish, fled Germany in 1938 and later settled in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He died in 1942.

Lawyer and avid art collector Michael Berolzheimer was able to bring his print collection of etchings by grand masters such as Rembrandt and an Auguste Rodin sculpture with him when he fled his home in Undergrainau, Germany, in July 1938.

He left behind a collection of more than 800 drawings for his stepson to sell to go toward exit taxes the Nazi government forced Jews to pay. They were auctioned off, and all the proceeds went to government coffers. Those that didn’t sell went into the free market or were lost during war events.

Berolzheimer, who was forced to relinquish his property and bank assets, settled in Mount Vernon, N.Y., And died in 1942 at age 76.

His stepson Waldemar Schweisheimer started looking for the artwork immediately after World War II. He recovered about 100 pieces before ending the search in 1966. The Rodin, which his stepfather had purchased in 1912, is in the City Art Museum of St. Louis.

More recently, Berolzheimer’s great-nephew, also named Michael Berolzheimer, renewed the search on behalf of the heirs — finding success through New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office, the only government office of its kind, which recently helped secure two of the drawings for the family.

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“I have a lot of respect for my great-uncle and I’m his namesake, and so this is a quest of honor, a way of honoring Dr. Michael in a manner that his life deserves,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Saitama, Japan, near Tokyo.

There’s a sense of justice that drives him too: “People who own these pieces of art should give them back,” he said.

Berolzheimer was “extremely erudite, very well educated, very knowledgeable about art and religious history” and served on the acquisitions committee of several art museums, his great-nephew said.

Since its creation in 1997, the Holocaust Claims Processing Office has accepted 162 art claims for thousands of items. Twenty-eight have been closed and 129 remain open. It opened a claim for the Berolzheimer artwork in 2011. It previously recovered several other works of art for the family, and is still looking for 26.

“It’s a bureau that’s just set up to do good and do right and achieve some small amount of justice for people,” said Benjamin Lawsky, New York superintendent of financial services.

One of the newly returned Berolzheimer drawings is an 1834 pen-and-ink portrait of a geographer by Reinier Craeyvanger. A Dutch antiquarian bookseller who had purchased the drawing at a Sotheby’s auction in 2005 agreed to return it. The Kunsthalle Bremen art museum in Bremen, Germany, returned the second one, which is by Italian artist Giacomo Cavedone (1577-1660).

In 2012, the office recovered two red chalk drawings for the Berolzheimer family — Hendrick Potuyl’s “Two farmers at an inn,” and Nicolas Bertin’s “Apollo and the Cumean Sybille.”.

The great-nephew became interested in searching for the lost art about 13 years ago, after receiving a call from a German art researcher inquiring about his great-uncle’s descendants. There are four heirs in New Zealand and three in the United States (one is a trust for two people). They are the descendants of Berolzheimer’s stepchildren. Berolzheimer is a descendant but not an heir.

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In 2009, he contacted one of the direct heirs and learned the Albertina museum in Vienna was planning to return stolen art to the family. He offered to help with the hunt and has been doing so ever since.

Berolzheimer, who retired after a successful business career, receives a “symbolic” amount of compensation to represent the heirs, but it doesn’t cover all his costs. His job is to get back as many of the remaining 600 drawings as possible.

“I’m doing it because I think I’m the only person who can do it,” he said. “I am impartial — that is to say that I’m not a member of the heirs so I don’t have an ax to grind. I have sufficient funds so that I can finance this effort. I’m retired, so I have sufficient time to pursue the effort.”.

Berolzheimer’s drawings are worth between $1,000 and $10,000 apiece. In some cases, an institution may negotiate with the heirs to keep the piece. In other cases, the work is auctioned. The heirs sometimes keep the drawings.

Berolzheimer credited the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets’ non-binding principles for helping the family make strides in restitution. The principles include identifying Nazi-confiscated art that has not been returned, encouraging pre-war owners and heirs to make their claims known, and giving consideration to “unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era.”.

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The Holocaust Claims Processing Office, part of New York’s Department of Financial Services, has a full-time staff of six that pursues dormant bank accounts, unpaid proceeds of insurance policies and art that was stolen or sold under duress. So far, it has helped return more than $163 million in assets and recovered 67 pieces of art for people all over the world. Like the rest of the agency, it is funded through assessments and fees on insurance companies and other financial services it regulates.

The office said in its January 2013 annual report that it expects victims and heirs will continue to need assistance. Claims processing entities in France, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are still accepting claims; insurance companies continue to review and process claims; and members of Congress continue to discuss legislation to address unresolved Holocaust-era claims.

The office pursues claims at no charge and regardless of the value of the lost asset or property. While its staff members work on claims from people all over the world, the majority of what they do is “New York-centric,” Lawsky said.

Without New York’s help, the restitutions Berolzheimer has helped obtain would have been improbable, he said.

“They provide a great deal of credibility when they go to an institution and say, ‘These are pieces of art that should be restituted to the rightful heirs,’ ” he said.

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