One of the few pieces of paper on James Palmer’s immaculate desk in his Toronto office contains a plea. It is a letter from an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, describing the art-filled Amsterdam villa that belonged to her grandparents when she was a child. She believes two of their paintings are now sitting in Dutch museums; her grandfather had to sell them in order to finance his Jewish family’s survival during the Second World War.
“Without his help and care it is most likely that we would have been deported to a concentration camp and our [lives] would have ended in the gas chamber,” wrote Elisabeth Cardozo, who is now a great-grandmother.
The letter, dated Jan. 3, 2019, and signed “in loving memory of my caring and noble grandfather," was written to aid her family’s efforts to retrieve those paintings.
Getting these paintings back – and other works despoiled during the war – is Palmer’s job. A sort of modern-day Monuments Man, Palmer and his company operate internationally to restitute art taken during the Nazi regime. Part detective agency, part legal firm, part art house, Mondex tracks down assets looted during the Second World War and works to return them – or, more likely, funds from their sale – to their rightful heirs, often descendants of the original owners. Mondex has been at it for more than two decades.
Palmer believes at least two of those works are rightfully Cardozo’s. He says the valuables her grandparents sold after the Nazi invasion in 1940 included two 17th-century oil paintings, one of which, a still life by the acclaimed Dutch master Jan Davidsz. de Heem, was purchased specifically for Hitler and the enormous art museum he planned for his hometown of Linz, Austria. The Fuhrermuseum was Hitler’s obsession, and the murderous dictator’s unrealized cultural fantasy sparked an astronomical plunder of art. It is estimated that more than 100,000 works of art and cultural items stolen from Jews during the Holocaust are still missing.
Reclaiming these works is not a simple act. It is often met with resistance from their current holders. The work of restitution is complex, meticulous and full of obstacles. It is tricky not only logistically, but can be ethically thorny as well, if viewed as an attempt to capitalize on historic crimes and losses. Recovering art taken from horrifically vulnerable people during the Holocaust may be the kind of work Jews would call a mitzvah – a good deed – but not everyone in that world considers it a benevolent endeavour when generous commissions are being earned.
This week, Palmer will be in the Netherlands to try to get these paintings back from the two museums where they now reside. The hearing is set for Monday in The Hague.
And it is happening in the wake of a major development: the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament, calling on members of the EU to support restitution of looted property.
In a Dutch system Palmer and others believe gives too much favour to museums, Mondex was originally given 15 minutes to make its case.
In a phone call with Cardozo’s son this month, Palmer made a promise.
“This woman said, ‘I would really like to see the return of these paintings before I pass away,’” Palmer recalled the next day. “And I said we’ll do our very best.”
The plunder of art and other valuables during the Nazi era was an extensive, elaborate and terrifying operation. Beyond the systematic seizure of valuables by the Nazis themselves, artwork was also sold through dealers or at auction by people under extreme duress: Jews who were forbidden from owning art, or were fleeing the Nazis, or who were desperately trying to raise money for living expenses in the absence of the ability to work or own a business. People also placed their artworks with museums and galleries for safekeeping, hoping they would survive to retrieve them after the war.
Taking into account art that was stolen, confiscated or forcibly sold, the numbers are staggering. The European Parliament resolution estimates some 650,000 pieces of art were looted during the war.
This has led to international efforts, often led by non-profits, to recover the art.
Marc Masurovsky – who co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) in Washington and has spent two decades in the trenches of research and restitution – says, all told, millions of objects were stolen and the work of restitution must continue. “Cultural plunder is a crime against humanity,” he says.
Canada has also had an active role in restitution. In addition to Mondex, the Max Stern Art Restitution Project is an organization involving three universities, funded by Stern’s estate, operating out of Concordia in Montreal. (Max Stern was a Jewish art dealer who fled Nazi Germany and ultimately moved to Montreal.) The foundation has recovered 18 paintings; the most recent, in November, Storm at Sea, by Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek (1778-1851).
The project’s leader, Clarence Epstein, says restitution is not merely of interest to the art world, but should be a moral imperative in society. “For us, restitution not only is a right that we are exercising on behalf of Stern’s university heirs, but it is also a way of reminding everyone today that these issues should not be forgotten or laid to rest, because a crime is a crime is a crime,” Epstein says.
The issue is very much alive. In November, restitution specialists gathered in Berlin to mark 20 years since the establishment of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art at a conference hosted by the German Lost Art Foundation. Palmer, who was there, reports there was some tension at the gathering over a change to the way the Dutch consider restitution cases – a change Palmer and others say make it more difficult for claimants to retrieve artwork stolen from their ancestors.
He says the Jan. 17 resolution by the European Parliament should be a game-changer. “This will remove many of the obstacles that previously impeded the restitution of these important artifacts and will encourage significant change to those governments which were resistant to restitution.”
Palmer, who was born and raised in Toronto, started Mondex in 1993. Initially, the corporation focused on bank accounts and unclaimed estates. When the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets established 11 principles calling for fair and just solutions regarding Nazi-looted art, Palmer recognized an enormous opportunity.
A descendant of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ukraine – the family name was changed along the way to protect against anti-Semitism – Palmer won’t reveal his age (“I stopped telling people how old I was when I was 19”). He has been interested in the law since he was a teenager. At 16, he would spend his free time sitting in on court proceedings. He did not earn a law degree, but went to York University for his undergrad and received his MBA from the Edinburgh Business School.
He won’t say how many successful restitutions his company has orchestrated; “several” is the term he uses. Mondex, now run by president Kamila Gourdie, is currently pursuing cases involving nearly 2000 works of art.
The company both acts on behalf of clients who contact it seeking lost artworks and does its own research looking for information that suggests someone was despoiled. In the latter cases, Mondex finds looted assets, matches them with potential heirs and executes the fight on their behalf, if they sign on. Mondex will work for an hourly fee, but most of its work is done on a contingency basis. Its commission is calculated on a percentage basis of the funds recovered if they win; that percentage depends on the case. Mondex keeps up to 39 per cent of the art’s value.
A 2016 New York Post profile quoted an attorney (Aaron Richard Golub, whose clients were in a legal battle with Mondex over a Modigliani) who called Palmer a “Holocaust hustler” – which naturally made it into the tabloid’s headline.
HARP’s Masurovsky says he was approached by a Mondex representative in the company’s early days and asked if HARP would work with Mondex. He refused.
“HARP does not work with entities that profit from the search for assets looted from Jews. That’s just the way we are. We disliked the crude salesmanship of Mondex reps and turned down the proposal,” Masurovsky wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
Epstein, in Montreal, won’t comment on Mondex specifically, but says it is not surprising that the restitution sector has attracted new players, given the dramatic growth in the area over the past 20 years.
“These interests range from the scholarly to the commercial and everything in between. And I think it’s up to individuals to decide what they want to be involved with,” he says. “I don’t see why there should be any issues in having choice, as in any other sector. It’s good to have choices.”
Palmer says very wealthy families – the Rothschilds, for instance – have the ability to pay to track down looted art, but most families do not.
“We assume all of the risk,” Palmer says. “We do the historical research, the provenance research, all these challenging types of work, and then, if we’re successful, we get a fee. And when we’re working with attorneys, we also help by advancing legal fees and we recover that if we’re successful. And if we don’t succeed, then we have to absorb that as an expense.
“There’s risks and it’s time consuming and, my God, you have to have the tenacity and compassion and passion and expertise,” he later adds.
Not to mention the financial resources. “I don’t think it’s going to get done unless you generate revenue, because you have to expend resources in order to do the work that’s necessary,” says Palmer, pointing out that his first recovery took 13 years. “You have to get the money from somewhere.”
He also points out that some of the company’s recoveries do not have a high monetary value. Young Girl in a Sunday Dress, an 1854 oil on canvas by the German painter Anselm Feuerbach, was restored to the descendants of Julius Schlesinger, a Berlin art dealer born in 1872 who escaped to South Africa in 1939. The painting, Palmer says, was valued at less than €2000.
Holocaust recovery is in some respects a race against time. The survivors are aging, and dying. In most cases now, restitution involves their descendants.
Among the company’s successes are the recovery of several paintings that once belonged to James von Bleichroder, a banker who was born Jewish in Berlin in 1859. After his death in 1937, his art collection was confiscated and sold at auction.
Mondex also fought for the restitution of two artworks recuperated by the Monuments Men (art experts who, during and after the war, helped the Allies recover art stolen by the Nazis). In 2014, the works were returned from the Dutch state collection to the descendants of Sam Bernhard Levie, a Jewish textile salesman who sold them near the beginning of the war, and later died in a concentration camp.
“When someone lets us know that they’ve agreed to restitution, we feel a sense of elation and a real sense of satisfaction,” Palmer says. “And a lot of pride.”
A number of Mondex’s cases have attracted international publicity, including the protracted legal battle over Modigliani’s Seated Man with a Cane (1918) and a complex lawsuit launched on behalf of the heirs of German art collectors Ludwig and Margret Kainer.
In 2018, a case involving a piece by the impressionist painter Alfred Sisley made headlines: A Swiss art dealer who bought First Day of Spring in Moret (1889) at auction at Christie’s in 2008 asked for his money back (plus interest) and offered to return the painting to the family that Mondex argues is its rightful owner. Discussions among the parties are continuing, Palmer says.
The loss of artworks was not, by far, the worst thing that happened to Elisabeth Cardozo’s family during the war.
That Amsterdam villa that Cardozo described in her letter to Palmer had belonged to her grandparents, Jacob and Johanna Lierens. It was confiscated by the Nazis after the 1940 invasion of Holland.
The Lierens’ daughter, Branca, and her husband, Emanuel Roselaar, were deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and murdered. Jacob and Johanna were also sent to a concentration camp, Westerbork, but were released through what was essentially a state-sanctioned bribe (known as a Sperrstempel). They survived the war in hiding, financed through the sale of their possessions. Jacob, a successful paper merchant, collected paintings by Dutch masters, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and other art objects. He began selling his possessions at auctions after the German invasion.
According to Mondex’s case, these valuables included two paintings which are now part of the “NK-collection” in the Netherlands. This was a group of artworks recovered by the Allies in Europe after the war and turned over to the Dutch government, with the understanding that the Dutch would search for and find the rightful owners for restitution.
Mondex is seeking a claim for two paintings: Still Life with glass, glass stand and musical instruments (1665-70) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem from the Centraal Museum in Utrecht (it is listed on the museum’s website as Pronkstilleven); and the painting Festive Company in a Renaissance Room (1628) (also known as Banquet Scene with Musicians and Shuffle Board Players in an Interior) by Dirck van Delen and Dirck Hals from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem.
After Jacob’s death in 1949, a large part of his collection which was not lost in the war was sold at auction. Then, his wife and children moved abroad. But Palmer has evidence that these two paintings were sold years earlier, in 1941, under duress.
The 470 pages Palmer’s company has collected about the Lierens case include a scan of a postwar property card. Dated July 19, 1945, the document contains a single sentence in the large blank space for the history and ownership details of the de Heem: “bought through Posse by Hitler” on Oct. 22, 1941, for 37,700 guilders. (Posse was Hans Posse, the man tasked with acquiring art for the Fuhrermuseum.)
Now, descendants of the family, who live in the United States and the Netherlands, want some justice. Mondex will have to prove their case to the Dutch Restitutions Committee.
Palmer does not have much good to say about the DRC, an independent panel set up to deal with claims for Nazi-looted art in Dutch public possession. He points to the introduction in recent years of a balance-of-interest mechanism – allowing the interests of the possessor (usually a museum) to be strongly considered by the DRC against the interests of the claimant. In other words, is it more important to leave a painting hanging in a museum than it is to return it to the descendants of its prewar owner?
“It’s absurd and it’s a flagrant insult to the whole premise and idea and the contract of the Washington declaration, but that’s what they’re doing,” Palmer said after a DRC ruling in November, which rejected a Mondex claim involving a Kandinsky oil, Painting with Houses (1909). The painting remains the property of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, much to the fury of Palmer and others.
“From being a leader in art restitution, these developments put the Dutch at risk of becoming a pariah,” wrote Wesley Fisher of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Restitution Organization, and Anne Webber with the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, after the Kandinsky decision.
In a response, the DRC said Fisher and Webber’s essay was full of inaccuracies. “Let no one be in any doubt that the interests of the victims of the Nazi regime always have top priority,” committee chair Alfred Hammerstein wrote.
But not all involuntary losses of possessions are the same, he wrote. “In some cases, an artwork was literally stolen or taken by force, while in others there was a transaction that would have been a routine sale anyway, whether or not there was a war going on.”
How could any transaction involving a Jewish owner at that time be considered routine, Palmer wants to know. “What an outrageous thing to say.”
The Fisher/Webber piece argues that this ranking of loss, along with the balance-of-interest test, have seen Dutch restitution rates fall from 100 per cent of claimed items returned in 2002 to 34 per cent in 2018. “Claimants are certainly now afraid to make claims to the Restitutions Committee since they have every reason to fear they will receive neither a fair hearing nor a just outcome,” they write.
So, in The Hague this week, Palmer and his associates will have their work cut out for them. But they will be arguing the case in a more favourable environment, created by last week’s European Parliament resolution. “This puts a lot more pressure on the [DRC] to start behaving in a way that’s in line with international legal and moral guidelines,” Palmer says.
Before the resolution passed, Mondex successfully fought to have more time allotted to go through this complex historical on Monday. To make their case, they will now have 30 minutes.