A Jewish Dealer’s Heirs Are Suing Sotheby’s, Alleging Its Provenance of a Tiepolo Work ‘Misled the Public’

The heirs of Otto Fröhlich say he sold the painting under duress during World War II. Sotheby's pleads 'human error.'

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, St. Francis of Paola Holding a Rosary, Book, and Staff (1730s). Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

When Sotheby’s New York offered Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s painting St. Francis of Paola Holding a Rosary, Book, and Staff (1730s) as lot 14 at its Master Paintings auction in May 2019, the house indicated only that it was at one point owned by Galerie Wolfgang Böhler in Bensheim, Germany, and that it had previously been sold anonymously at Sotheby’s, in 2001. 

The heirs of Otto Fröhlich, a Jewish gallery owner, now claim in a lawsuit reported in the New York Times that Sotheby’s left out a great deal, saying that he, the rightful owner, left the painting in Austria only under duress when he fled the Nazis for London in 1938.

Sotheby’s, who did not name the seller and estimated the canvas to sell for as high as $100,000, said that it did not know about this part of the painting’s history.

The heirs claimed in the lawsuit that the painting was in the possession of Julius Böhler (no relation), a Munich dealer who, according to American authorities in 1946, was implicated in art looting. They said Sotheby’s “misled the public,” tracing the provenance through the wrong gallery, “perpetuating the very cycle of injustice and exploitation that began in 1938 and that the international and national restitution laws and policies were designed to prevent.”

Sotheby’s is pleading “human error.” 

The claimants even pointed out that Sotheby’s sale catalogue listed Antonio Morassi’s 1962 publication A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G.B. Tiepolo, which, they said, correctly identifies Munich’s Julius Böhler, the dealer implicated in Nazi looting, as having handled the painting. 

Wolfgang Böhler’s son, Florian, tells the Times in an interview that his father never handled the painting and that he had nothing to do with Julius Böhler.

Fröhlich’s heirs said that he would not have sold the painting but for fear of the Nazis, and are are petitioning the court to compel the auction house to publish the identities of the seller and the buyer, so they can file a claim for restitution.

Fröhlich moved to London in 1938, the Times points out, the very year that Nazis required Jews to register their property with the state. He moved the painting to Vienna’s Galerie Sanct Lucas for safekeeping later that year, according to the suit.

The Mondex Corporation, which is helping the heirs to trace the painting’s travels, has papers that show that Sanct Lucas’s owner, Robert Herzig, got the Nazis’ blessing in 1941 to sell the Tiepolo to cover debts he said Fröhlich owed him. The lawsuit contends that the painting was undersold, and that in any event, the sale was forced in the context of Nazi persecution, and that Fröhlich tried to recover the painting after the war. 

Since the lawsuit was filed, the painting’s provenance has become only more complicated. 

In a statement quoted in the New York Times, the auction house said that further research indicated yet another owner. 

“Upon being contacted by the Fröhlich heirs, Sotheby’s undertook further research into the painting, unearthing in the process new information regarding the history of ownership of the painting following the Anschluss,” said Sotheby’s in a statement sent to Artnet News. “While it is clear that the Fröhlich family owned the painting from 1941 onwards, Sotheby’s research points to a previous owner, themselves a subject of Nazi persecution, the heirs of whom may also have grounds to make a possible claim. While Sotheby’s remains committed to reaching a just and amicable solution in the restitution of this work to its rightful heirs, additional research and evidence is needed to ascertain who the correct claimant should be in this instance, with current evidence supporting a possible claim by the heirs of Adele Fischel.”

Fischel was, per the Times, deported from Austria and killed at the Theresienstadt camp. 

The Fröhlich heirs claimed that that was a good-faith sale.

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