Heirs battle estate over $30m Monet painting from Emden collection sold during Nazi era

Le Palais Ducal (1908) by Claude Monet

Le Palais Ducal (1908), a painting by Claude Monet valued at more than $30m, has been kept off the market according to lawyers for the estate of its last owners Herbert and Adele Klapper, because of doubts cast about its Nazi-era sales history by the grandsons of the German-Jewish department store magnate and art collector Max Emden (1874-1940). The Klapper estate is suing in New York District Court to clear its title to the painting so that it can be sold at auction.

Herbert Klapper, the founder of the Superior Sewing Machine and Supply Corporation, died in 1999, and his wife Adele died in 2018. In November that year, 13 works from their collection (out of 16 consigned) brought $41.1m at Christies, falling short of pre-sale estimates. The Klapper estate withheld Monets Le Palais Ducal from that sale after a lawyer for the Emdens approached Christies, according to the court papers.

Three of Emdens heirs, brothers who reside in Chile, allege that the picture was sold under duress to Swiss dealers during the Second World War. They also say New York is the wrong jurisdiction to hear the dispute, but they have not made any legal claim on the work.

“The Monet was sold in a negotiated transaction to a prominent Jewish art dealer in Switzerland with whom Max had done business,” says the Klapper estates lawyer Thomas Kline, “and with whom [his son] Hans Erich continued to do business after the war.”

Settlement talks between the two parties soured last spring, and the case has been adjourned until September, due to the coronavirus.

The Klapper estates lawyers, who filed for a declaratory judgment on title to the Monet, say the Emdens “sought to create leverage over the marketability of art their grandfather once owned, and to be alerted so that they could use the pressure of an impending sale to extract money from bona fide owners”.

Nicholas ODonnell, a new lawyer for Emden's grandsons, responded that “if Christies or Sothebys were comfortable selling the painting, they could. The Klappers are mad that due diligence is a fact in the market now”.

The dispute over the Monet is framed by the saga of Max Emdens persecution once the Nazis took power in 1933 and the seizure or sale of his property. Emden, who co-founded the landmark Berlin emporium KaDeWe, owned department stores in Germany and other countries. His philanthropy built and funded many of Hamburgs cultural institutions, as well as the citys polo club, whose fields he owned.

In 1927, Emden bought a villa on the Swiss island of Brissago in Lake Maggiore. A 2018 German documentary, Living Is Also An Art, tracks how the Nazis tore apart Emdens business and fortune. Although Emden, who took Swiss nationality in 1934, was baptised a Christian in 1893, the Nazi regime treated him as “fully” Jewish, seizing his properties in Hamburg and elsewhere.

Pressed for funds, Emden began selling his art. Three paintings by Bernardo Bellotto were bought in 1938 by Karl Haberstock, the German dealer who acquired works for Hitler. One of those, The Zwinger Moat in Dresden (1758), was designated for Adolf Hitlers planned Fuhrermuseum in Linz.

Hans Erich Emden, with neither Swiss nor German nationality, fled to Chile via Brazil with a Haitian passport in 1941, delegating the sale of 14 works while abroad to his familys agent Olga Ammann and the dealer Walter Feilchenfeldt. Another Monet from that group was bought by the arms manufacturer Emil Bührle, who supplied the Wehrmacht.

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