The New York Times: Heirs Sue Over Ownership of a Pissarro, Saying It Was Seized by Nazis

By Colin Moynihan

May 13, 2021 Updated 9:17 a.m. ET

They claim that the painting, “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre,” was taken from their ancestors by the Nazis, and have filed a lawsuit in Atlanta to recover it.

A family claims that Pissarro’s “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre” was taken from their ancestors by the Nazis and auctioned off in 1935. They have filed a lawsuit in Atlanta to recover it.Credit…Lefevre Fine Art Ltd./Bridgeman Images

More than a dozen heirs of a Jewish couple who left Germany as Hitler rose to power have filed a lawsuit in Georgia seeking to recover a Pissarro painting said to have been part of an extensive collection of works seized by Nazis.

The painting, “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre,” an oil on canvas work depicting a harbor scene, was among works belonging to Margaret and Ludwig Kainer taken by Nazis after they left Germany, according to the lawsuit filed on Monday in Federal District Court in Atlanta.

Dated 1903, the year of Pissarro’s death, the painting has been valued at about $500,000 to $1 million. It is believed to now be in the possession of the Horowitz Family Foundation in Atlanta, or members of the Horowitz family there, the lawsuit said, naming as respondents the foundation and members of the family: Gerald D. Horowitz; his wife, Pearlann Horowitz; and their son, Scott Horowitz.

“The Nazis confiscated or misappropriated hundreds of thousands of pieces of art as part of their genocidal campaign against the Jewish people,” the suit says, adding, “The story continues today, with the Kainers’ heirs continuing to try and locate and demand their rightful property.”

Joseph A. Patella, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Horowitzes, said they had no comment on the litigation. The lawsuit states that the Horowitzes have previously denied that the Kainer heirs were “the rightful owners” of the Pissarro.

Many Jewish families lost valuable artworks before and during World War II. But the case of the Kainer heirs illustrates the difficulties of figuring out what has become of looted artworks and who, exactly, may have a right to recover them, especially when there are competing claims.

The Kainer heirs — the granddaughter of Ludwig Kainer, his great-grandchildren and descendants of Margaret Kainer’s first cousins — have faced an added unusual circumstance as they sought to recover works. For decades, a Swiss foundation has presented itself as the Kainers’ “heir,” collecting proceeds from the sales of some artworks that had belonged to the Kainers as well as war reparations from the German government.

The foundation appears to have its roots in Weimar Germany. Margaret Kainer’s father, Norbert Levy, had created a family foundation in his name in 1927, according to court papers related to a separate case, and stipulated that at least one member of the two-member board of trustees be a director of the Swiss Bank Corporation, which merged with another bank in 1998 to form the global banking giant UBS.

The Kainers received money from the foundation during World War II, but it was legally terminated with the death of Margaret Kainer in 1968, the Kainer heirs maintain. In 1970, documents indicate, a Swiss Bank director advocated resurrecting the foundation to function as the Kainers’ legal successor and to help educate children, preferably “of Jewish heritage from prewar Germany.”

That foundation, named after Norbert Levy, was the subject of another lawsuit that the Kainer heirs filed, in State Supreme Court in New York in 2013, which described the foundation as “a sham” meant to cheat them out of their inheritance. Lawyers for UBS said years ago in court papers that the company has no relationship with the foundation. The foundation has maintained that, under the terms of Norbert Levy’s will, it has a legal right to the assets it has collected.

In 2017, a judge dismissed the case against the foundation and UBS, saying that the court system in New York was not the proper forum for the heirs’ claims, and an appellate court upheld the decision. Lawyers for the heirs are now challenging those rulings in the state’s Court of Appeals, arguing that the case should be decided in New York.

It is not clear whether the existence of the Swiss foundation could further complicate the dispute over the Pissarro. A lawyer who has represented the foundation in the New York litigation did not reply to an email message asking whether the foundation plans to make any claims of ownership of the Pissarro painting.

According to the lawsuit filed this week in Atlanta, Margaret and Ludwig Kainer left for Switzerland in 1932 to obtain medical care, but never returned to their home in Germany. Alarmed by the persecution of Jews there, they instead moved to France. Meanwhile, the lawsuit said, Nazis sold the stolen Pissarro at auction in 1935.

Eventually, the Kainers registered the work as looted with the French Department of Reparations and Restitutions, the plaintiffs said, adding that information about the painting, along with a photograph of it, was included in a directory of property looted in France and elsewhere during the war.

The painting’s path during the 60 years after the auction in Germany is uncertain. In 1995, the lawsuit said, Gerald D. Horowitz bought the painting from Achim Moeller Fine Art in New York.

“I can say that my gallery did exercise care and due diligence into the provenance of artworks at that time and has since then,” Moeller wrote in an email to The New York Times, adding in a second message: “I would never have knowingly sold a work of art that had been stolen in Germany during that time.”

He also provided a report from the International Foundation for Art Research, dated 1994, on a 1903 oil on canvas by Pissarro depicting a harbor scene that was billed to Gerald Horowitz. That report said the work “does not appear in our database as having been reported to us as stolen.” But it added that “not every theft is necessarily reported to us.”

A Pissarro catalogue raisonné from 2005 listed the work as having been plundered from L. Kainer during World War II, the lawsuit said.

Then, in late 2014 and early 2015, the work was displayed for almost three months at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. That alerted researchers with the Mondex Corporation, an art recovery company representing the Kainer heirs, that the painting still existed.

People working with Mondex sent letters inquiring about the painting to the museum and to the Horowitz family. Later, lawyers for the heirs sent letters to members of the family and to the Horowitz Foundation, asking for the return of “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre.”

The lawsuit added that lawyers for the Horowitzes refused the demand that the work be turned over and denied that the heirs had any right to it.

Now, the precise location of the painting remains a mystery to the heirs.

The lawsuit said that in the summer of 2015, representatives of the Kainer family had spoken briefly with Scott Horowitz.

“Mr. Horowitz was unwilling to confirm whether his father still possessed the painting,” the lawsuit stated, “and refused to disclose its whereabouts.”