Snubbed Heirs Sue UBS Over Nazi-Looted Degas

They claim the bank set up a “sham” foundation.

Edgar Degas, Danseuses, 1896 Photo via: Christie's

Descendants of Jewish collectors Ludwig and Margret Kainer, whose fortune was sized by the Nazis during WWII, have started legal proceedings against executives at the Swiss bank UBS. According to the New York Times, the heirs claim that they neither received nor  were made aware of any assets subsequently recovered.

Most prominent among those recovered assets was Edgar Degas’s Danseuses (1896), which fetched $11 million at Christie’s in 2009. Their $1.8 million share of the proceeds from that sale, together with other funds including war reparations paid by the German government, were instead channeled into a foundation set up by one of the bank’s senior managers, officially meant to support the education of Jewish youths.

Margret Kainer and her father, Norbert Levy, had a long-standing relationship with the Swiss Bank Corporation, which merged with Union Bank of Switzerland in 1998 to form UBS. Not only did the bank manage their vast wealth, but it also oversaw a foundation set up by Levy for his daughter before his death.

When the Nazis came to power, Mrs. Kainer and her husband fled to France, and most of the family holdings were confiscated. But throughout the war, the foundation was safe in Switzerland. It provided the Kainers with 800 Swiss francs every month, until the funds ran out in 1944. The foundation was officially dissolved in 1968 upon Mrs. Kainer’s death.

The Kainer’s Heirs

The Kainers died childless. Their most direct descendants are the 12 children and grandchildren of Mrs. Kainer’s cousins. That group of heirs are now claiming that little effort was made to track them down after the couple died.

In 1970, the West German government agreed to pay a lump sum to the family. But as the heirs were “unknown,” Swiss Bank Corporation director Dr. Albert Genner suggested bringing the foundation back to receive the payout. Since then, many assets have be recovered: an estimated $11 million was collected by the foundation in total, some of which came from the sale of artworks from the Kainers’ collection, including the Degas.

Meanwhile, very little is known of the foundation’s philanthropic activities. James Palmer, the president of Mondex Corporation, which specializes in provenance research and recovery, told the Times he hadn’t “found any evidence that they’ve given any significant [amount of] money to anybody.” But the foundation’s board members don’t appear to have received anything from it either, barring refunds for minor expenses claims.

When contacted by the Times, UBS claimed that the bank was only a “bystander” in the case and declined to elaborate further.

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