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Six-Year Challenge to Ownership of Art Historian Paul Westheim’s Modernist Art Collection Dismissed in New York Supreme Court

New York State Supreme Court building in Manhattan.

GAGLIARDIPHOTOGRAPHY/SHUTTERSTOCK

A six-year-long restitution battle concerning the rightful owner of several works by key modernist artists appears to have finally come to an end.

In a June 11 decision, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of art dealer and collector Yris Rabenou Solomon and her family, who have maintained they are the rightful owners of four works from the collection of the late art historian, critic, and collector Paul Westheim, the onetime publisher of the German art magazine Das Kunstblatt.

The Solomon family claims to have purchased three of the paintings and received one of them as a gift from the late dealer and art critic Charlotte Weidler. (Yris Solomon is now the executor of Charlotte Weidler’s estate, and Teimour and Darius Solomon, Yris’s sons, are its heirs.) A stepdaughter of Westheim, Margit Frenk, claimed that it was her family that should own the paintings.

“Personally, I want to vindicate [Frenk’s] claims,” Andrew Krinsky, a lawyer for Frenk, told ARTnews. “I think the decision is wrong and sets a dangerous precedent.” He said Frenk is considering her next steps, which could involve submitting an application to New York’s Court of Appeals.

The decision gives the Solomon family ownership of four Expressionist paintings: Otto Mueller’s Bathers (1910), Paul Klee’s Two Little Pleasure Castles (1918), Max Pechstein’s Portrait of Paul Westheim (1928, also known as Portrait of a Standing Man), and Edgar Jené’s Plastische Imagination (ca. 1930).

Much of the case hinged on a 1973 release through which Frenk’s mother, Marianna, relinquished claims to all the artworks in Westheim’s collection. Margit claimed that the release was fraudulently induced because Weidler had kept secret the whereabouts of Westheim’s holdings.

Like many restitution suits, this one revolved around what really happened to artworks held by European collectors when they were forced to relocate in the years before and during World War II, but it is especially complicated because Westheim willingly entrusted his collection to Weidler when he fled to Paris from Berlin in 1933.

Before his death in 1963, Westheim tried to receive compensation in Germany for works from his collection that he believed had been destroyed in bombing raid during the war. Melitta Weidler, Charlotte’s sister, said in a corresponding affidavit that some works in Westheim’s were destroyed during an air raid in Berlin on March 1, 1943, though she “could not by any stretch of the imagination say today how many and which of Mr. Westheim’s paintings were burned.” In the recent suit, Margit claimed that Melitta’s claims in this affidavit were false. 

In 1973, following Westheim’s death, his wife, Marianna Frenk-Westheim, took legal action against Weidler. Frenk-Westheim learned of the sale of a painting—Oskar Kokoschka’s Portrait Robert Freund II (1931)—from Westheim’s collection, and she alleged that Weidler had sold it through Serge Sabarsky Gallery in New York. The parties in that case ultimately settled on a general release, meaning that Frenk-Westheim relinquished the claims she had made on the work. She received $7,500 in that settlement. 

But, according to the 2013 complaint, this was not the only work Weidler would go on to sell, and per the filing, Frenk-Westheim “mistakenly believed” it was the only piece from her husband’s collection to survive World War II. In 1976, Weidler would allegedly go on to sell Otto Dix’s painting To Beauty (1922) through the German dealer Ewald Rathke. According to attorney David Rowland, who represented Margit Frenk, Frenk-Westheim received $30,000 from the sale of To Beauty.

In an interview with ARTnews, Rowland said that the profits allegedly gained from the sale of To Beauty should serve as evidence that the 1973 decision did not pertain to every work in Westheim’s collection. “It’s a horrible decision, and it really is a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “It undermines the rule of law because it favors the alleged thief above the true owner, who in this case was a Nazi victim searching for his collection.”

According to Rowland, Weidler did not begin selling works from Westheim’s collection until after his death. He declined to provide details about how Margit Frenk became aware of the Solomon family’s possession of works from Westheim’s collection.

William Charron, who represented the Solomon Family, said in a statement to ARTnews, “The Solomons are, and have always been, good faith owners of these paintings, and they are grateful for this decision. The Court’s decision confirms that, despite years of litigation which the Solomons had to endure, Ms. Frenk presented no evidence to support her claims. We believe the Court’s decision is absolutely correct.”

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