This weekend as first reported in the German news magazine, Focus, and as reported in the Australian newspaper (and endlessly repeated by the international press), the world learned of the existence of a cache of art work hidden away in the Munich condo of the aged son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, a German art dealer tasked by the Nazis to safeguard part of their purloined booty. The 1500 masterpieces are estimated to be worth a stunning $1.4 billion dollars. Given the thoroughly documented practice of the Nazis to have either bought property from Jews at prices negotiated at gun point or to have simply stolen it, and buttressed by the fact that after the War Gurlitt falsely asserted the 1945 burning of Dresden destroyed his art holdings, many credibly suspect that most, if not all, of property found in Gurlitt’s possession belonged to European Jews who suffered persecution. To determine their origins, art historians and heirs of Jews are rushing to study a partial catalog of the works assembled over the last two years by German authorities.
The search for the rightful heirs to the works has just begun, and Heir Hunters International is well positioned to aid in these international efforts. Over the years, Heir Hunters International investigated unclaimed funds and lost property once belonging to holocaust victims and those fortunate to have survived. Some of the cases we solved, others not yet; with more records being made available and Eastern European archives being re-organized and opened to foreign researchers, we are optimistic claimants will eventually be located. In any event, the pursuit continues.
To educate ourselves on Jewish genealogy, we regularly attend talks, seminars, and international conferences on the subject. We have met with Jewish scholars at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and The Shoah Foundation on the campus of Southern California University. As serious students, we try never to miss the International Conference of Jewish Genealogical Societies, long considered the most comprehensive of the forums. And we often tour the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., when meeting with its eager and diligent staff who endlessly aid in our research.
Shar Mansukhani and I have even pursued our Jewish studies internationally. In the former Warsaw Ghetto, at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation Genealogy Project with the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, we discussed the Institute’s collection with Yale J. Reisner, its former Director of Research. From Warsaw, we continued our travels to Vilnius, Lithuania, where we explored its National Archives.
Finally, earlier this year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we attended a lecture given by Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, the world’s preeminent expert on Jewish holocaust restitution claims. Senior Counsel with the Washington, D.C., law firm, Covington and Burling, as head of its international practice, the Ambassador served as President Clinton’s special representative on Holocaust related issues and negotiated groundbreaking Holocaust restitution agreements with many European countries. Based on this experience, he authored the seminal work, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (2009/revised-2013).
As noted above, German officials released only a partial listing of the art work secreted in Gurlitt’s apartment. As can be imagined, demands are rapidly growing, however, for a full accounting to be made so that no time is lost in aiding in the search for the rightful heirs to this lost property. If you feel you might have a claim, Heir Hunters International suggests you contact Germany’s Central Council of Jews or the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in New York’s Department of Financial Services. In reporting on the subject,The Wall Street Journal and many other publications routinely quote, David Rowland, “a New York lawyer who [has] helped Jewish families reclaim paintings . . . .” Mr. Rowland can be reached by phone at 212-685-5509 and on the web at rowlandlaw.com.