MFAH Backgrounder and Statement: “The Marketplace at Pirna,” c. 1764, Bernardo Bellotto

MFAH Backgrounder: The Marketplace at Pirna, c. 1764, Bernardo Bellotto

The following is based on documentation identified by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and provenance researcher Laurie Stein, who was recently awarded Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit for her work in restituting World War II–era confiscated artworks.

Max Emden was a German businessman who emigrated to Switzerland prior to 1930 and took Swiss citizenship, residing with his art collection on his personal island of Brissago, in Lago Maggiore, until his death by natural causes, in 1940. It is thought that he acquired The Marketplace at Pirna between 1928 and 1930, but the prior ownership of the painting has not been fully documented.

As the archival documentary evidence establishes, in 1937 Emden began negotiations to sell three Bellottos that he owned and had with him in Switzerland, through his art dealer of choice, the Jewish gallerist Anni Caspari. Acting on Emden’s behalf, Caspari offered these three canvases to Karl Haberstock, an art dealer working on behalf of the German government. When Haberstock did not act quickly enough, Emden recalled the three pictures to Switzerland. From Switzerland, Emden had them shipped to London and then Berlin, and back to Switzerland via London, in order to show the artworks to potential buyers in those cities.

This documented activity underscores that Emden could move the paintings as he wished in order to market them for sale. Hitler’s dealer, Haberstock, became the eventual buyer. In June 1938, Emden’s full asking price—60,000 Swiss francs for the three paintings—was agreed upon and the sale to Haberstock finalized and documented. The purchase funds were transferred to Emden’s bank account, as demonstrated by the historical documentation. The three Bellottos were sent to Berlin.

After the fall of Berlin, in May 1945, the three Emden Bellottos were gathered at the Munich Central Collecting point. The two that were removed from the Reichskanzlei in Berlin were transferred to the German state in Bonn. Considered to have been acquired as the result of a voluntary—not a forced—sale, they remained in the German state’s possession until 2019. The third Bellotto, Pirna, which is now thought to be the Museum’s Bellotto, was restituted by the Allies to the Dutch Government in 1946. It was in turn restituted by the Dutch government, through official channels, to Hugo Moser, an art dealer operating in Berlin, Amsterdam, and New York. Moser sold it to Samuel Kress of New York, who in turn gifted it in 1961 to the Museum, where it has been on public display over the years. 

Despite having opportunities to do so, Emden’s son and heir, Hans-Erich Emden, did not make a claim for the Bellottos, even though he did successfully pursue restitution for other family assets left behind in Germany when his father emigrated to Switzerland, before 1930. In 2007 and again in 2011, the Emden heirs contacted the Museum in an attempt to obtain possession of the work. The independent international investigation into the history of the Museum’s Bellotto, commissioned from Laurie Stein, focused on the specific details of Emden’s 1938 sale of the Bellotto paintings. The evidence established that the 1938 sale of all three Bellottos to the German government was voluntary. The results and source documentation were shared with the modern-day Emden heirs. Following these results, on neither occasion did the family pursue a claim.

This voluntary-sale determination was reached after a thorough review of the historical context and documentation, including multiple factors: Emden, as a pre-World War II Swiss citizen and resident, whose Bellotto paintings were with him in his Swiss villa, initiated the transaction through a dealer of his choice; was able to ship the paintings throughout Europe until he found a buyer willing to agree to his price; and he received full payment of his asking price in his own currency, Swiss francs. Consistent with this determination, the Emden heirs did not themselves seek restitution of or compensation for the Bellottos from the German government after the war, despite pursuing claims for other property that was in Germany. Nor did the family further pursue a claim with the Museum after the findings and research was shared in 2007 and again in 2011.

Recently, the modern-day Emden heirs have pressed their case with the German government. In 2019, Germany awarded the two Emden Bellottos in its possession to the Emden family. The Museum acknowledges the decision of the German government but maintains that this recent decision does not alter the facts or voluntary nature of Emden’s 1938 sale of the Bellottos.

The Museum acknowledges that questions have persisted, in the official Bellotto catalogue raisonné, as well as in various publications, regarding the independent histories of the many versions of this particular composition, since Bellotto’s work was prolific and his compositions often nearly identical. The research conducted by the MMF, and subsequently shared with the Museum, enhances the provenance research previously conducted by the Museum, by showing a link between the Museum’s Bellotto and the 18th-century collector Gottfried Winkler, and in turn Dr. Emden, of Switzerland.

July 21, 2021 | MFAH Statement: The Marketplace at Pirna, c. 1764, Bernardo Bellotto 

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, affirms its legitimate title to the painting The Marketplace at Pirna (c. 1764) by Bernardo Bellotto. The Museum also refutes the characterization of the painting as having been subject to a forced sale. The decision is based on the Museum’s own prior research and the independent and impartial research commissioned from Laurie Stein, the Berlin- and Chicago-based president of L. Stein Art Research, LLC. A recognized authority in the field of provenance research and committee member at the German Lost Art Foundation, Stein in 2020 was awarded Germany’s only federal decoration, its Cross of Merit, for her decades of work in researching, locating, and restituting World War II–era confiscated artworks.

Over the last several months, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has been in communication with the Monuments Men Foundation (MMF) regarding The Marketplace at Pirna, painted around 1764, which was given to the Museum by Samuel Kress in 1961. In accordance with the 1998 Washington Principles to review modern-day Holocaust-era claims, the Museum has promptly responded to requests by the MMF for photographs and information as thoroughly as possible and has again examined the Bellotto’s provenance. This review follows on those previously conducted in 2007 and again in 2011, wherein the Museum commissioned independent international provenance investigations into the Bellotto’s prior ownership. At that time, the heirs of Dr. Max Emden, who owned a Bellotto Marketplace at Pirna and sold it to the German government in 1938, through the art dealer Karl Haberstock, had raised a claim. As called for by the Washington Principles, the Museum in both 2007 and 2011 shared with the Emden family representatives the results and source documentation, which confirmed the Museum’s clear title. Following these discussions, the family did not pursue any claim. The Museum considered the matter closed.

Thanks to the MMF’s recent efforts, newly discovered information may connect the Houston Bellotto with an 18th-century collector, Gottfried Winkler. That in turn may connect the Houston canvas with the one that Dr. Emden sold to the German government in 1938. The new potential findings will be carefully reviewed in light of what was previously known and now-accessible documentation. As the Museum’s independent research documented in 2007, Dr. Emden initiated the sale of his Bellotto (of which there are several versions) from his home in Switzerland, where the artwork was located, and he openly pursued and received his asking price. While the MMF’s information is helpful in determining prior ownership, it does not alter the legitimacy of the 1938 sale. Based on this documentation, the Museum’s ownership of its Bellotto likewise remains intact.

“The Museum maintains, as it did in 2007 and 2011, that the 1938 sale of Bellotto’s The Marketplace at Pirna to the German government was initiated by Dr. Emden, as a Swiss citizen, with the painting under his control at his villa in Switzerland, and concluded by him voluntarily,” said Gary Tinterow, Director, Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “There has been some doubt in the past as to whether the Houston Pirna was the Emden Pirna. This has been due to the existence of multiple versions, several of which were taken to the Munich Central Collecting Point after World War II, including two owned by Hitler. We are grateful that the MMF has shared the research that helps inform this vexing point. We will be updating the Bellotto’s provenance for the Museum’s internal records and website with the new information that has come to light, once it has been fully evaluated. In the meantime, the online provenance has been streamlined, at my request, by removing conjecture in order to focus on the fully documented facts.”
Updated August 6, 2021