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David Toren: 'Why wait so long?'

Susanne Lenz-GleissnerNovember 10, 2014

The New York attorney, heir of a Max Liebermann painting found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s collection and determined Nazi "looted art," tells DW of his struggle to have the artwork returned to its owners.

David Toren
Image: DW/S. Czimmek

David Toren, 89, has lifelong memories of Max Liebermann's painting "Zwei Reiter am Strand" (Two Riders on the Beach). The painting once hung in the mansion of his great-uncle, David Friedmann. In August, the task force "Schwabinger Kunstfund" determined that the Liebermann masterpiece, found in the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, was Nazi-looted art "taken from David Friedmann's living heirs as a consequence of persecution." Gurlitt, who died in May, left his collection to the Bern Art Museum. On November 26, the museum will announce whether it will accept the inheritance. What would the decision mean for David Toren? DW reporter Susanne Lenz-Gleissner spoke with Toren in his apartment in Manhattan.

DW: What do you think about the German approach to dealing with Nazi-looted art like your painting?

David Toren: Awful. This Painting "Two Riders" surfaced more than two years ago in the apartment of Gurlitt in Munich. So why should it have taken two years? This slowness is the reason why I brought a lawsuit against Germany and Bavaria, which is going its course in a Federal Court in Washington to rush things. I'm proceeding on a two-track-method. The first one is the Task Force, where I don't have to do anything. They do all the work. The next one is my lawsuit, and I'm the only one who has brought a lawsuit against Germany and Bavaria to get paintings back. This had a good press all over the world, including Germany. There were great articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, in Die Zeit, all saying: "Now finally Berlin and Munich will have to act."

And this lawsuit is still going on?

It goes on, but very slowly, because Germany and Bavaria have the right to delay under the law under which I sue. I sue under the "Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act," which essentially makes a foreign state immune to lawsuit in this country with some exceptions. And I rely on one of those exceptions. And I brought this lawsuit on May 5th of this year, and only now has Germany appeared through a Washington law firm. And as usual, they made a motion to dismiss the suit for various reasons. It will take years.

Max Lieberman's painting "Two Riders on the Beach"
The painting in questionImage: DW/S. Czimmek

As a lawyer – can you understand the complicated legal procedures?

Yes, I can, but it is unfair in a sense that people like me - heirs of those whose paintings were stolen - should have to engage in expenses and time to get their rightful property back. It should go much faster. When it all started, the governments of several countries urged Germany to rush the resolution of this matter because the heirs of the original owners are old due to the passage of time.

This happened between 70 and 80 years ago. Most of these paintings were stolen by the Gestapo around 1938 and '39. That is now over 75 years ago. And the heirs - I will be 90 in April. My brother, who is co-heir, died four months ago. He was 93. So why wait so long?

Of course now things are a little different because Gurlitt, in his will, left everything he owned to the Bern museum. That was a disappointment to the German museums.

Do you think the Bern Art Museum will accept Gurlitt's estate?

Oh yes. Why not? It's only a question of maybe taxes. They probably will have to pay taxes if they take all these paintings, and they will need a new building, etc. But the paintings they get are worth probably a billion dollars. So why shouldn't they take it?

Ronald S. Lauder from the World Jewish Congress said if the Bern Art Museum accepts the estate of Gurlitt, it will open a Pandora's box. What does he mean by that?

Well, a lot of people will claim that the paintings are theirs. That's what he means.

Could that be a reason to decline the estate?

This might be a reason. I actually have a letter from the lawyer of the Bern Museum where he says that if they accept the estate, I will get my painting. They accept the opinion of the Task Force, and I will get my painting. And they asked me for the names of the other heirs. My brother died, but he has three daughters who are his heirs. So we have four heirs now: me and the three daughters. So it's difficult to decide who should get the painting. We haven't made a decision yet.

Is that also the reason why you hope the Bern Art Museum Bern will accept the estate?

No. If they don't accept it, I have still my lawsuit. And the lawsuit may give me the painting.

How should Germany deal with Nazi-looted art? What do you expect?

Well they should investigate the provenience of the paintings, which sometimes isn't easy. But if it can be established that certain paintings belong to "Mr So and so," then they should look for the heirs, and if they find them, they should give the art to the heirs.

What memory do you have of the Liebermann painting?

Very little. I left Germany when I was 14, and I saw the painting for the last time the day after the Crystal Night on November 9, 1938. My father had been arrested in the morning by the Gestapo. At the day after the Crystal night all Jewish men in Germany of the age of 17 to 75 were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, including my father for three weeks as punishment. I sat in a little room where that painting "Two Riders on the Beach" was hanging. It was in a dark room with a lamp on the other side of the painting shining on the painting. And I looked at it for hours, because I had to wait. I always liked that painting because I like horses. And there were two horses. That's the last time I saw the painting.

A family photo from Toren's collection
A family photo from Toren's collectionImage: DW/S. Czimmek

What value does the painting have?

The principle of getting back some heirloom of my family. It belongs to my family. I have nothing. I have one photograph which I took with me so Sweden. I wasn't allowed to take anything with me. My parents were thrown out of the apartment around 1941 and lived in a small little room in a bad neighborhood of Breslau (edit: now Wroclaw) until they were deported and killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The painting is an heirloom. It belongs to my family. No one else should have it. It could be one of the few things which could remind me of my background, of my family.