Heirs of Jewish Gallery Owner Who Fled Nazi-Occupied Austria Claim Sotheby’s Was Misleading About Sold Painting’s Provenance

Heirs of Jewish Gallery Owner Who Fled Nazi-Occupied Austria Claim Sotheby’s Was Misleading About Sold Painting’s Provenance

Shiryn Ghermezian

A partial view of “St. Francis of Paola Holding a Rosary, Book, and Staff” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Photo: Sotheby’s via Wikimedia Commons

Three heirs of a Jewish man who fled Austria to escape Nazi persecution during World War II are claiming in court papers filed on Friday that the auction house Sotheby’s “misled the public” by selling a painting once owned by their relative without disclosing the artwork’s full provenance and its ties to the Nazi era, The New York Times reported this week.

In 2019, Sotheby’s sold St. Francis of Paola Holding a Rosary, Book, and Staff by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, an oil on canvas left behind in Austria by Jewish gallery owner Otto Fröhlich when he fled the country in 1938. At the time of the sale, Sotheby’s auction catalog merely said the painting was part of a “distinguished private collection” and once owned by the Galerie Wolfgang Böhler in Bensheim, Germany. The painting sold for $100,000.

In a petition filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Fröhlich heirs allege that the painting was once in the possession of Julius Böhler, an art dealer in Munich, according to The New York Times. The publication additionally noted that Böhler’s name appears a number of times in a 1946 report by the US government’s Art Looting Investigation Unit that examined World War II-era stolen artwork in Europe. Böhler was accused of looting art and the report also described him as “a strong Nazi.”

Fröhlich’s relatives also claim in their petition that in 1938, after Fröhlich fled Vienna for Britain, the Tiepolo painting was transferred for safeguarding to the Galerie Sanct Lucas in Vienna. The heirs believe that by attributing the painting to the wrong gallery, Sotheby’s made the sale easier for themselves while also “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,” the petition said.

Fröhlich heirs did not specify that the Tiepolo painting was looted, but instead argue that it was a “forced sale.” They claim Fröhlich would not have been forced to close his gallery, flee Austria and leave the painting behind if it was not for Nazi persecution, according to the New York Times. They are demanding that Sotheby’s reveal the identity of the painting’s seller and purchaser so the family can move forward with a restitution claim.

Sotheby’s said in a statement cited by The New York Times that the provenance listed in its 2019 catalog for the painting was a result of “human error.” The auction house added that it further researched the artwork after hearing from Fröhlich heirs and discovered that the painting had a owner before Fröhlich who faced Nazi persecution and whose heirs may be able to lay claim to the art.

“While Sotheby’s remains committed to reaching a just and amicable solution in the restitution of this work to its rightful heirs, 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 Adele Fischel,” Sotheby’s said.

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