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Posted Saturday, September 12, 1998



WE REPRODUCE with acknowledgements (see below) this article


September 10, 1998

High Court sends looted Old Master back to Germany

By Will Bennett, Art Sales Correspondent

300,000 pictures 'are still missing'

A £700,000 PAINTING looted after the Second World War was returned to the German government by a High Court judge in London yesterday in a test case with major implications for the art market.

Mr Justice Moses ruled that the 17th-century painting by the Dutch mannerist artist Joachim Wtewael belonged to Germany rather than to a Panamanian company, Cobert Finance, which bought it in 1989. Had the company won the case, the way would have been cleared for a huge quantity of missing war art to be sold openly, much of it in London, capital of the art market.

The ruling on Wtewael's The Holy Family with Saints John and Elizabeth and Angels revealed details of the nefarious trade in art looted by all sides in the chaotic period at the end of the war. Convicted Russian art smugglers gave evidence in the case.

Mr Justice Moses said that the painting was eventually taken out of Moscow in 1987 by Big Mamma, the nickname of Mariouena Dikeni, wife of the Togo ambassador to the Soviet Union. Mrs Dikeni had previously smuggled works of art, including icons, out of Moscow.

She was contacted by a man who wanted to get the Wtewael to Berlin and, after a meeting in an embassy car, she agreed to act as a courier. She was to be paid £28,000 when she handed the painting over to a man called Fürst in West Berlin. But when she returned to Moscow she claimed that she had left it with a relative in Berlin. The painting then disappeared for a time before resurfacing in London.

The judge accused Cobert of lying and said that Douglas Montgomery, one of its representatives, had been associated with "the payment of what I regard as a bribe" to a witness in the case.

The 8in by 6in Old Master, painted on copper in 1603, was bought by the Duke of Saxe-Coburg in 1826.

By the time of Nazi Germany's collapse in 1945 it had been given by the duke's family to the Ducal Foundation for Art and Science in Gotha. It disappeared after the city was occupied by the Russians.

Cobert said that the picture was given to a Soviet colonel called Kozlenkov, whose son sold it in Moscow in 1985. After passing through two other owners it was bought by Cobert, which tried to sell it in London. It was withdrawn from an auction at Sotheby's in 1992 after doubts were raised about its provenance.

The German government contended that it had been stolen by Russian soldiers and taken to the former Soviet Union, where it surfaced in 1986. Cobert argued that, whatever the history of the painting, the German government had left it too late to claim it back under the 30 years limitation period set by its own laws.

But the judge ruled: "The law favours the true owner of property which has been stolen, however long the period which has elapsed since the original theft." He said that it would be against public policy "to permit a party which admits it has not acted in good faith to retain the advantage of lapse of time." He could not allow Cobert "to succeed when, on its own admission, it knew or suspected that the painting might be stolen".

The judge accused Cobert of having "deliberately and unconscionably concealed facts" and said that by 1991 Mr Montgomery knew that the painting had been stolen. He ruled that, in any case, the limitation period ran only from 1987 when Mrs Dikeni "misappropriated" the painting. The judge said: "Whether my conclusions will result in a greater opportunity for those who enjoy Dutch mannerism or wish to cultivate their antipathies, others will have to decide."

Dr Michael Carl, a German lawyer representing the Bonn government, said after the hearing: "This is an important test case and such an extraordinary story that they should make a film of it. I am delighted at the outcome."

Pamela Kiesselbach, solicitor for Cobert, said: "We have to analyse the judgment properly, but there is a possibility that we may appeal. The company has no further comment at the moment."

The painting, which has been stored at Sotheby's while its future was being decided and where the judge viewed it, will now be put on public exhibition in Germany.  

© The Daily Telegraph 1998.

Our opinion
IRONICALLY, Judge Moses' ruling will have repercussions for the lawyers for Gitta Sereny who have accused Mr Irving of removing Goebbels Diary plates temporarily from the Russian "jurisdiction" while they were being tested for authenticity by Kodak Ltd and Pilkington, the glass firm.

The judge's ruling means that the Russians never had jurisdiction over the stolen glass plates in the first place...

The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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