ARTnewsletter Archive

Potential Restitution Claim for Renoir Prompts Preemptive Suit

Representatives for the estate of a Chicago couple who owned a landscape painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Illinois last month after an attempt to sell the work at auction was blocked when the auction house discovered evidence that the work might be one of several sold under duress

NEW YORK—Representatives for the estate of a Chicago couple who owned a landscape painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Illinois last month after an attempt to sell the work at auction was blocked when the auction house discovered evidence that the work might be one of several sold under duress in Europe in the 1930s because of the Nazi regime.

The couple, Newton Korhumel and his wife Irene Korhumel, had owned the painting, Paysage Pres de Cagnes, for more than 50 years, having acquired it from Hammer Galleries, New York, in 1956, according to the claim. The price was not specified. The complaint notes that the invoice also listed Redfern Gallery, London, and Acquavella Galleries, New York. Since acquiring it, the claim states, the Korhumels had displayed the painting in their home in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Mr. Korhumel died in 2001 and in December 2010, Mrs. Korhumel passed away. The executor of the estate, Herbert J. Theisen, began communicating with Christie’s in early 2011 to explore the possibility of selling certain items from the estate including the Renoir, according to the lawsuit.

The claim states that, “on April 25, 2011, Mr. Theisen received a letter from Christie’s noting concern regarding the provenance” of the Renoir. “The letter noted that the painting appeared to have been part of a sale offered at the Dutch auction house Frederick Muller & Cie in Amsterdam on June 13, 1933.” In May 2011, Christie’s withdrew the painting from its auction catalogue and, “despite the Korhumel Estate’s demands,” the auction house has “refused to return it to the Korhumel Estate” until the potential claim is resolved, the complaint states.

The suit does not specify exactly when the painting was transferred or consigned to Christie’s or what it was estimated at for the auction. Christie’s letter “marks the first time that anyone has ever questioned Mr. and Mrs. Korhumel’s or the Korhumel’s Estate’s possession and ownership” of the Renoir, the lawsuit says. Christie’s declined to comment.

It is not clear who the defendants are since the lawsuit names them only as “Estate of I.K. and John Does, purported heirs of I.K.” According to the suit, I.K. alleges that the painting was once owned by Richard Semmel, a wealthy German industrialist of Jewish descent who lived in Berlin and owned several artworks. Semmel and his wife Clara left Germany for the Netherlands in 1933, the complaint states. According to court records, Semmel sold part of his art collection in 1933 at the Dutch auction house. “Upon information and belief, the Semmels left the Netherlands before the German invasion in May 1940 and settled in New York, New York where Mr. Semmel lived until his death of natural causes on December 2, 1950,” the complaint says.

According to the suit, “I.K. claimed that ‘G.G. –E’ was the sole heir of Richard Semmel….I.K. claimed to be the sole heir of her mother G.G. –E.” The defendants are “individual persons residing in South Africa, and are citizens or subjects of South Africa,” the claim states.

Olaf S. Ossmann, an attorney in Winterthur, Switzerland, confirmed to ARTnewletter that he represents the heirs of Richard Semmel and said the Renoir is one of several paintings sold at the 1933 auction. “There is no doubt that this painting formerly belonged to Mr. Semmel and was lost by a sale of duress,” said Ossmann. However, he notes that he is unsure of whether this is a case of “legal title or moral title,” given that the claim was filed in a U.S. state court.

Chicago attorney Deanna Swits, who represents the Korhumel Estate, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ossmann expressed surprise that Christie’s wrote to the representative of the Korhumel Estate but did not contact him “as they know I represent the heirs,” of Richard Semmel. Ossmann says the painting was “registered as part of the lost Semmel collection at the Art Loss Register.”

Ossmann added that one of his Chicago-based colleagues tried to contact the Korhumel estate heirs to set up a meeting to discuss the issue. “They denied [that] and declared they want to go forward with the court file.”

In 2009, the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Claims in the Netherlands recommended that a painting titled Portrait of a man, by T. de Keyser, part of its national collection and then housed in MuseumgoudA in Gouda, be returned to Semmel’s heirs. Information in the committee’s report contains similar information to that outlined in the lawsuit. The applicant in the de Keyser claim is identified by the committee as “I.K. of South Africa” whose mother, again identified only as “G.G.-E.,” is “said to have cared for Semmel, who was in very poor health, on a daily basis after his wife’s death in 1945. The applicant stated that her mother was named sole heir in gratitude for looking after him. Semmel died in New York on 2 December 1950,” according to the committee’s report.

In its fact finding investigation report, the committee agreed with I.K.’s claim that: “Semmel experienced the anti-Jewish climate in Germany from as early as 1933 onwards…It appears that Semmel was put under such pressure that he fled Germany in April 1933 and as a result was forced to sell his property or leave it behind.” The Committee said it considered “the loss of possession to be involuntary due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.”

In its lawsuit, filed on August 15, the Korhumel estate seeks “quiet title to the [Renoir] and to obtain an order from this Court requiring the Defendants to cease and desist her wrongful efforts to obtain,” the work. The defendant’s actions “have slandered” title to the painting “causing damages to the value” of the painting and preventing its sale, according to the lawsuit.

The claim states that the letter from Christie’s to Theisen noted that “Semmel’s heir’ has made a number of attempts in recent years to locate and claim works of art and referred Mr. Theisen to the Defendants’ attorney in Switzerland.”

The suit asserts that the defendants “are unrelated to the Semmel family yet claim to have inherited whatever rights or claims the late Richard Semmel may have had in the painting.” Further, it claims they are barred by the five year statute of limitations from bringing a tort-based or personal action.

The estate is seeking a declaratory order from the court that it is the rightful owner of the Renoir.