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Italian police are trying to establish the true owner of a Picasso painting worth €15 m (£11m) after confiscating it from a pensioner who says he was given it for free.

The Rome resident, a former frame-maker, told detectives he received the work in 1978 as a thank-you gift for an act of kindness towards a recently bereaved customer.

A widower had come into his shop in a state of distress after breaking a photo frame in which he kept a picture of his late wife. Touched, the frame-maker replaced the glass for free.

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The woman, carved from limestone, sits with her arms resting on her pulled-up legs and looks enigmatically ahead. She is regarded as one of Romania’s finest modernist artworks, yet the Bucharest government’s refusal to say whether it wants to buy her has left the €20m (£15m) sculpture in a murky legal limbo, and its owners unable to sell.

The statue, "The Wisdom of the Earth" by Constantin Brâncuși, has a history that reflects the tumult in its creator’s native land. First sold in 1911, it was confiscated by the communists in 1957 and became the subject of a lengthy legal battle after the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, ending in 2008 with it returned to the family of its original owner.

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London’s Victoria & Albert Museum holds the only known copy of a complete list of “degenerate art” that was confiscated by Nazis from public institutions in Germany. The Entartete Kunst was compiled by Hitler’s Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and includes information on the provenance and fate of each work. The list was donated to the museum by the widow of Heinrich Fischer, an Austrian-born art dealer, in 1996. Since its acquisition, the Entartete Kunst has been used by provenance researchers from around the world.

For the first time ever, the Victoria & Albert Museum will make images of the original pages of the Entartete Kunst available online. The 479-page volume lists institutions alphabetically by location and for each museum, the confiscated works are listed and include information on what happened to each piece. For many works, the name of the buyer and a price are given, while others are marked with an “x,” indicating that they were destroyed.

The Nazis deemed any work that was “un-German” or “Jewish Bolshevist“ in nature degenerate art. While virtually all modern art was deemed degenerate, the Nazis promoted paintings and sculptures that were traditional in nature. The Nazis forced avant-garde German artists into exile and their works were either sold at auction or acquired by museums or collectors. In 1942, a large portion of so-called degenerate works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró were destroyed in a bonfire.

A PDF of the Entartete Kunst will be made available on the Victoria & Albert museum’s website starting at the end of January.

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Monday, 15 October 2012 17:52

After Seven Years, Egon Schiele Case is Closed

On October 11, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the current owner of Egon Schiele’s Seated Woman with Bent Left Leg (Torso) could keep the drawing he purchased in the early 1960s from a gallery in Manhattan. Featuring the artist’s signature muted color palette, the work has been at the center of a seven-year-long legal battle.

The dispute arose when heirs to Fritz Grunbaum, a Viennese cabaret singer who was murdered by Nazis in 1941, claimed that the work had been unlawfully confiscated from Grunbaum’s estate in 1938. Although David Bakalar currently owns the drawing, Grunbaum’s heirs, Milos Vavra and Leon Fischer, considered themselves to be the rightful proprietors. When Bakalar attempted to sell Seated Woman at Sotheby’s London in 2004, Vavra and Fischer stopped the sale. Bakalar, who had bought the Schiele drawing from Galerie St. Etienne for about $3,300, was attempting to sell the work for about $675,000.

Although Grunbaum was a noted collector of Schiele’s work, there was no direct evidence that he had owned Seated Woman or that Nazis had confiscated the drawing. However, evidence emerged that Grunbaum’s sister-in-law, Mathilde Lukacs, sold the drawing in Switzerland in 1956. The Swiss dealers who had purchased the drawing from Lukacs testified in the case and provided records of the sale. Based on this evidence, the U.S. District Court ruled that Grunbaum was most likely not the drawing’s owner and that Nazis had not stolen the piece, rather, it had stayed with the family until the sale in 1956.

The Court’s ruling was particularly significant because Bakalar had employed New York’s “laches defense,” a defense that is used by good-faith buyers to protect themselves against frivolous claims. While Schiele’s heirs claimed that if Lukacs had owned the drawing it was because she had stolen it from Grunbaum, Bakalar argued that the fact was irrelevant because no claims had been filed and that crucial evidence had disappeared over the decades.

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