The Nazi bureaucrats had zeroed in on David Friedmann’s art collection and were scheming to lay their hands on it. They had gone through his villa in Breslau, Germany, noted the paintings and ordered him not to sell anything.
Although Friedmann was Jewish, the local Nazi official in charge feared he lacked the authority to “secure” the art for the Reich. So, on Dec. 5, 1939, he wrote Berlin: There were works by the German impressionist Max Liebermann, among others, whose sale could bring the Reich needed revenue.
Authority must have come, because a Liebermann painting, “Two Riders on the Beach,” soon vanished, along with other art the Nazis looted across Europe.
This week, 75 years later, Friedmann’s descendants finally got it back.
The collector’s grand-nephew, 90-year-old David Toren, said in an interview Friday that the painting had been returned to his representatives in Germany on Wednesday.
Toren, who lives in Manhattan, said he was pleased to get the painting back but noted that he has been blind since 2007. He said he had a contract with an auction house and was not free to talk further about the piece.
Earlier in the week, though, after a German inheritance court cleared the way for the painting to be returned, he said, “I’m very happy. Although, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all very theoretical because I’m blind. I’ll never see that painting. I mean, I saw it when I was a little boy. But it’s the principle.
“My parents were killed in Auschwitz,” he continued, “and the rest of my family, except a brother, too. So I am very happy that I have a victory.”
The painting depicts two young men riding horses along the edge of the surf under a glowering sky.
The piece was among 1,400 artworks, including paintings by Matisse, Chagall and Picasso, that were confiscated in 2012 from the Munich apartment of the late Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive 81-year-old son of the Nazi art broker Hildebrand Gurlitt.
Toren said his is the first family to have a painting returned from the Gurlitt hoard.
A second painting, Henri Matisse’s “Femme Assise,” was also returned to descendants of its owner Friday.
In 2013, when German officials revealed the existence of the trove, they held a news conference and showed the Liebermann painting and several others as examples, according to Toren and a lawsuit he filed in Washington last year to retrieve the work.
He said he was alerted by a Berlin law firm that knew he had been seeking to recover the assets of his great-uncle.
In August, a German task force studying the Gurlitt trove and looking for descendants of the works’ owners ruled that “Two Riders” had been looted from Friedmann and should go to Toren.
David Friedmann was a wealthy landowner, industrialist and art collector in Breslau, now the city of Wroclaw in western Poland.
“David Friedmann’s estate was very substantial,” Toren’s Washington attorney, August J. Matteis Jr., said Tuesday. “There were many pieces of art that were stolen by Nazis from him.”
With the Nazis in control of Germany in the late 1930s, they began a systematic looting of private art collections across Europe. In part this was to stock a grand “Führermuseum” planned by Hitler, and in part it was a plot to sell art for currency.
In Breslau, the collection of David Friedmann — the brother of Toren’s grandfather — was a prime Nazi target, according to Toren’s lawsuit.
“A number of Jews, who due to their formerly acquired wealth, own not inconsiderable treasures, mainly pictures . . . pottery, silver and ivory miniatures, are still residing in my district, especially in the city of Breslau,” a senior Nazi civil servant, identified as Dr. Westram, wrote Berlin in December 1939.
A copy of the letter and an English translation are included with Toren’s lawsuit.
“A Jew, Friedmann,” had an especially fine collection, Westram wrote the Nazi secretary of economics. Westram knew because he had sent “my responsible clerk” along with an art expert to take a look.
Friedmann, who died in 1942, had works by French impressionists, German landscape artists and Liebermann, Westram reported.
“I forbade the Jewish owner to sell any of the works of art, or dispose of it otherwise without obtaining permission from the authorities,” he wrote.
At that point, Toren, then 14, had already escaped Germany on a “Kindertransport,” which spirited Jewish children to safety in other countries, according to his lawsuit.
He said Tuesday he remembered the painting from his adolescence. “I know exactly how it looks,” Toren said. It hung in a sunroom of Friedmann’s villa, where his father, his great-uncle and guests would play cards.
The elder Gurlitt was known as an “art dealer to the Führer,” and trafficked in works the Nazis stole from Jews and others before and during World War II.
He likely acquired “Two Riders on the Beach” from the head of a Breslau museum who directed art seizures from Jewish homes and was one of Gurlitt’s main art suppliers, according to Toren’s suit.
In 1942, the director, Cornelius Hofstede, wrote to Gurlitt offering him the “Two Riders” painting and another by Liebermann, “Basket Weavers,” which Friedmann had owned.
“You said you were interested in such things,” Hofstede wrote. “I would be happy to come . . . and show you the objects.”
When Nazi Germany collapsed, the elder Gurlitt had a collection of art said to be worth over $1 billion.
He died in a car accident in 1956. His son died last year.
Before he died, the younger Gurlitt had sold paintings from the trove when he needed money.
Toren’s suit says Gurlitt tried to sell “Two Riders” several years ago, but he couldn’t get it off the wall where it hung in his apartment. He sold another painting instead.
Gurlitt sold “Basket Weavers” about 15 years ago through a Berlin auction house, Toren said. “We are trying to recoup that because they weren’t supposed to auction it because it was looted art. We don’t even know where it is.”