Heirs Of Nazi-Persecuted Art Dealer Alfred Flechtheim File Suit in Federal District Court in New York Against Bavaria

Eight Paintings by Beckmann, Gris and Klee Valued at Nearly $20 Million
Press Release
December 6, 2016

New York, NY, December 6, 2016 - Dr. Michael Hulton and Mrs. Penny Hulton, the respective American and British heirs of renowned German Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, have asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to restitute several paintings by Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and Juan Gris that are now in the possession of the German federal state of Bavaria, Adolf Hitler’s and the Nazi party’s homeland, and its Bavarian State Paintings Collections (known in German as the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, or BSG). 

Flechtheim was a successful dealer of modern art, who was the target of vicious anti-Semitic propaganda starting in the early 1930s. The eight paintings that are being sought in this lawsuit were confiscated from Flechtheim in 1933. Once the Nazis seized control of Germany, his galleries in Berlin and Düsseldorf were "Aryanized," the state-sponsored process through which Jews’ property and businesses were seized for the benefit of approved “German” owners. Flechtheim lost control of his affairs and fled Germany in fear of his life. He took refuge first in Paris and then in London, where he died impoverished in 1937. His wife committed suicide in 1941, and his mother-in-law and niece followed suit in 1942 on the eve of their deportation to the death camps. 

"Bavaria is completely out of step with the international community with respect to restitution of Nazi-looted art," said Nicholas M. O’Donnell of Sullivan, an attorney for the Hultons, descendants of the art owner, who filed the Complaint. "Its refusal to return the Flechtheim paintings and avoid the resolution of this and other claims on the merits is an insult to the victims of the movement that began right in Munich. It is past time for Bavaria to do the right thing."

The lawsuit is brought pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which confers jurisdiction over the defendants because the claims concern rights in property taken in violation of international law, and Bavaria and the BSGS do big business within the United States through exhibitions and other activities like the famous Hofbräuhaus franchises and "Oktoberfest" events. The attorneys also point to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles, which established standards of restitution for Nazi-confiscated art, and to which Bavaria previously agreed in a 1999 resolution with Germany and its other federal states.

Bavaria has been embroiled in controversy in recent years on the issue of Nazi-looted art, even though 29 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer in support of the Hultons’ claim for restitution or compensation for the Holocaust–related confiscations of Flechtheim’s art. In 2013 the German magazine Focus revealed that Bavaria had seized 1,280 works of art from the reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich, works later revealed to be clouded in suspicions of Nazi theft through their connection to his father Hildebrand Gurlitt. It has since been revealed that Gurlitt traded in work that had once belonged to Flechtheim. More than three years later the Gurlitt investigation is mired in a lack of transparency and lack of progress. More recently, it was revealed that for years Bavaria had re-sold looted works returned to Germany by America’s famed "Monuments Men" to prominent Nazi families rather than restitute them to Holocaust victims. Bavaria has returned barely a dozen works of more than a 1,000 with Nazi-looting connections so far.


Alfred Flechtheim was the owner of successful galleries in Düsseldorf and Berlin, responsible for sponsoring the emerging careers of artists like Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and other stars of the Weimar era. As the Nazis’ power increased in the early 1930s, Flechtheim became a convenient scapegoat. Nazi propaganda newspapers and magazines used Flechtheim’s picture with racist captions and slogans long before 1933.

By the time the Nazis took control of the German government on January 30, 1933, Flechtheim’s life and business were in peril.  He fled Germany in May, 1933. His business was reopened by his former chief assistant, who in the end turned out to be a Nazi opportunist. His paintings were stolen and dispersed, his family perished in the Holocaust, or took their own lives, facing deportation. Dr. Hulton’s father and Penny Hulton’s late husband Henry Alfred Hulton—born Heinz Alfred Hulisch, a German-Jewish refuge in London, like his uncle—was Flechtheim’s named heir. 

Flechtheim’s name is a byword for persecution by the Nazis. Following a past recommendation by Germany’s Advisory Commission on looted art, for example, the Hultons recovered an Oskar Kokoschka painting from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne because, as the Advisory Commission put it, "it is to be assumed that Alfred Flechtheim abandoned the disputed painting because of his situation of persecution. The Nazi-persecuted loss of the painting is therefore affirmed." 

"Alfred Flechtheim is a paradigmatic example of a Jew persecuted from the ranks of the German middle class," O’Donnell said. "His success and even his appearance provided fodder for racist propaganda that drove him out of his home and business within months of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Even Germany’s Advisory Commission on restitution has recognized Flechtheim’s persecution, but Bavaria refuses to do the right thing." The Hultons longtime German attorney Markus Stötzel added, "Justice is overdue in this case. Bavaria’s bad faith actions towards the Holocaust victims needs to be stopped and sanctioned."

The heirs of Alfred Flechtheim are Dr. Michael Hulton of San Francisco and Penny Hulton, of England. Dr. Hulton said, "Bavaria has rejected all attempts to open discussions and that leaves us with no other options but to go to court because there is simply no justice in Germany and no forum of relief in Germany."

The U.S. District Court filing against the Free State of Bavaria and the Bavarian State Paintings Collection can be found here.

The "Washington Conference Principles" on Nazi-Confiscated Art can be found here: https://www.lootedartcommission.com/Washington-principles

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