US foundation claims Castro regime seized paintings that Hitler failed
by David D'Arcy | 22 December 2015
A US foundation is stepping up efforts to recover fr om Cuba a
collection of paintings by Picasso, Degas, Goya, Van Gogh and Hans
Memling, among others. The missing works, which are potentially worth
hundreds of millions of dollars, are assumed to have been taken fr om
the Havana home of Olga Lengyel (1908-2001), an art collector and
Auschwitz survivor, after rebels led by Fidel Castro seized power on the
Caribbean island in 1959. None of the paintings has been seen for more
than 50 years; their fate is unknown.
The case is one of the largest US property claims against Cuba and could
complicate the improving cultural relations between the two countries.
The US and Cuba recently began official discussions about property worth
around $7bn that has been seized fr om US companies and citizens since 1959.
"These claims are still totally outstanding," says Mari-Claudia Jiménez,
a lawyer with Herrick, Feinstein, the firm representing Lengyel's
foundation, the Memorial Library in New York. "Normally, certified
claims are for immovable property, like a sugar plantation or a house,
not for paintings. If one of these pictures is discovered in the United
States prior to those claims being settled, we can certainly bring a
claim for the recovery of such a work."
The paintings once hung in the Havana home of Olga Lengyel, the only
member of her immediate family to survive Auschwitz. According to
witnesses cited in a dossier of documents filed with the US government,
the canvases, along with antique furniture and other valuable objects,
remained in the apartment when Lengyel left the island after Castro took
An extensive pre-Castro inventory of the apartment was compiled by
Lengyel and the firm that insured her property. The inventory, seen by
The Art Newspaper, includes Dancing Figure and Bending Dancer by Degas,
Portrait of the Marchesa by Van Dyck, Three Noblemen by Goya, Angel in
Paysage by Memling and Fruits in a Bowl by Picasso. (No dates of the
works are listed in the inventory.)
Only family member to survive
Olga Lengyel was born in 1908, in Kolozsvar, Hungary (now Cluj in
Romania). She was the daughter of Ferdinand Bernat-Bernard, a wealthy
industrialist. In the 1930s, fearful of economic uncertainty and a
worsening political situation, Bernat-Bernard transferred assets to
France, wh ere he arranged to buy paintings and other objects as
investments through the dealer Joseph Schaefer. It is not known why his
assets were not seized as Jewish or foreign property by the Nazis or
their French collaborators.
Olga Lengyel's book about Auschwitz is believed to have been the
inspiration for the novel and film Sophie's Choice.
It is not clear whether Lengyel was Jewish. Yet in 1944, when her Jewish
physician husband was arrested and ordered to be deported, Lengyel, her
parents and her children boarded the train that took them to
Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lengyel was the only family member to survive. After
the war, she settled in Paris, wh ere she wrote the memoir Souvenirs de
l'au-del à, which was published in English in 1947 as I Survived
Hitler's Ovens. Later editions of the book were retitled Five Chimneys:
a Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz. Her book has been cited as
an inspiration for William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, which was
adapted for the screen in 1982.
Lengyel later moved to New York, wh ere she became a US citizen, before
relocating to Cuba in 1954. She then shipped her art and other objects
from France to Havana; this is confirmed by shipping records that are
included in the dossier. The pictures and property were installed in her
apartment in central Havana. Photographs of the dwelling's many
rooms—also among the documents filed with the US government—show the art
on the walls.
After 1959, Lengyel fled Cuba and returned to New York. She then
registered a claim to the property she had left behind. Authorities in
Havana classified such property as abandoned and therefore subject to
seizure by the state. Cuba ignored her claim, as it did with all
American claims filed with the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of
the United States (FCSC). Lengyel resubmitted it in 1972, citing sales
records for comparable paintings. The FCSC—the US agency that certifies
property claims against the Cuban government—revised appraisals of the
art upwards, to between $3m and $4m, to reflect the rising value of her
pictures and decorative objects at the time. Today, the paintings could
be worth 100 times that amount.
Barack Obama's administration has taken Cuba off the US's list of
countries that sponsor terrorism—a clear diplomatic upgrading—but
property claims remain an obstacle to cultural exchanges. If Cuban
property enters the US on loan, that property—for example, works of art
lent to the US by a Cuban museum—could be seized to satisfy a claim by a
US citizen or that citizen's heirs. The US State Department is also said
to be wary about granting immunity from seizure for objects that US
museums propose to borrow from Cuban institutions. "There is still
resistance, even though Cuba has been removed from the watch list," says
a lawyer who follows Cuban-American relations.
Lengyel, who is not known to have had children besides the two who were
murdered in Auschwitz, died in 2001. She left her estate and her house
on 79th Street in New York to the Memorial Library, which she founded to
promote Holocaust education. The Memorial Library is now trying to
recover her paintings."
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
US foundation claims Castro regime seized paintings that Hitler failed to steal
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