A Swiss man claiming to be a descendent of the family of a noted German Jewish art collector is accusing a Washington law firm of leaving him out of a settlement over valuable paintings sold during World War II that found their way to U.S. museums.
Thomas Wach, according to a lawsuit (PDF) filed Oct. 7 against Washington-based Byrne Goldenberg & Hamilton, is a descendent of the family of a sister of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, before his death in 1935, owned a massive private art collection that included works by Pablo Picasso and other masters.
Lawsuits filed by heirs of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s family claimed that he had sold pieces from his collection under duress from the Nazi regime in power at the time.
Two of the paintings, by Picasso, ended up at the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. Various descendents of Mendelssohn-Bartholody, who did not have any children but designated his wife and his sisters as heirs, sued the museums, claiming they had rights to the art.
The heirs were represented by Byrne Goldenberg & Hamilton, which pursued the case in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. There were five sets of heirs, who all agreed to split any recovery equally. In February 2009, just before the case was set to go to trial, the heirs entered into a confidential settlement with the museums.
Wach alleges that the firm never contacted him about the case, even though he is the nephew of one of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s sisters, Katharina Wach. In a letter attached to the complaint, name partner John Byrne told Wach that his connection to the family did not make him eligible to be included in the group of heirs.
Curtis Boykin of Washington’s Douglas & Boykin is lead counsel for Wach. He declined to comment. John Byrne did not immediately return a request for comment.
The suit is the latest to come through Washington federal court over claims to artwork owned by Jewish collectors during World War II. In one pending case, the descendants of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, a Jewish Hungarian collector, are pursuing claims against the Hungarian government over art taken by the Nazis.