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Published: Thursday, 2/9/2006

Heirs seek to avoid legal battle over Gauguin painting

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Gauguin's 'Street Scene in Tahiti' was sold to dealers in 1938 and bought five months later by the Toledo Museum of Art. Gauguin's 'Street Scene in Tahiti' was sold to dealers in 1938 and bought five months later by the Toledo Museum of Art.
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The heirs of a woman who owned a painting by Paul Gauguin in the 1930s are asking the Toledo Museum of Art to withdraw its lawsuit, filed last month, seeking a court decision that the museum is the rightful owner of the painting.

The heirs of the estate of Martha Nathan, a German Jew who sold Street Scene in Tahiti in 1938, said they want ownership to be determined instead by an independent art commission.

"The heirs feel that this is the only way they can obtain a fair hearing, not clouded by legal technicalities, and taking into account the moral aspects of the case," they stated in a news release issued yesterday by David J. Rowland, their New York attorney.

The six-page statement also encompasses an 1889 painting by Vincent van Gogh, The Diggers, which the Detroit Institute of Art was given in 1970.

"We're asking the American museums to apply the same standards that the European museums apply," Mr. Rowland said.

In response, the Toledo museum issued a statement saying it already made a concerted effort to resolve the claim with the heirs and won't withdraw its lawsuit.

Ms. Nathan had no children. She sold her Gauguin to a trio of art dealers for $6,865. Five months later, they sold it to the Toledo museum for $25,000.

The heirs' statement says Ms. Nathan was forced to sell the paintings out of necessity because most of her other property had been taken because of Nazi persecution, and after World War II she couldn't afford to track down and buy back the paintings. Moreover, Switzerland, where she sold the paintings, did not have comparable restitution laws to Germany and France, it said.

The 15 heirs Mr. Rowland represents include the children or grandchildren of Ms. Nathan's siblings and other unrelated people who were included in her will. Most live in Europe.

The lawsuits were filed in Toledo and Detroit on Jan. 24, the same day Toledo museum Director Don Bacigalupi and Detroit museum Director Graham Beal met for the first time with three heirs at Mr. Rowland's office. The heirs, who had come from Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, felt ambushed, he said.

"This is being treated very aggressively," Mr. Rowland said. "They want to take this case and make a precedent of it."

A letter from Claude Ullin, an heir living in Australia, said Ms. Nathan died an almost penniless woman.

"The heirs recognize the importance of the van Gogh and the Gauguin to their respective communities, but hope that the museums understand that there is a compelling moral responsibility to at least right the wrongs that the Nazis perpetrated on innocent individuals and Jewish families," Mr. Ullin wrote in the letter, made public yesterday.

About 30 claims have been made on U.S. museums for Nazi-looted art, said Edward Able, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Museums.

About a dozen claims resulted in some form of restitution or art being returned to families.

"The clients are prepared to be very reasonable," Mr. Rowland, said.

Added Charles Stuckey, a Gauguin expert in Chicago: "Since the beginning of 2006, there have been an unprecedented number of decisions favoring previous owners, indicating there's a moral need to reconsider title. There's no clear right and wrong."

Street Scene in Tahiti, painted in 1891, probably would bring $10 million to $15 million at auction, he said.

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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