CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A Charleston man is working to get back paintings his family lost to the Nazis during World War II.
Bruce Berg filed a lawsuit against the Netherlands, the country’s ministry of education, culture and science as well as several museums. Berg’s grandfather was Benjamin Katz, who was a partner in a renowned art gallery in the Netherlands that specialized in paintings by Dutch “Old Masters” like Rembrandt.
While the war was raging on the front lines in May 1940, Nazi agents were collecting prized paintings for Hitler’s dream of building the greatest museum in the world. It was what some have called the greatest art plunder in human history, and it was a part of Adolf Hitler’s conquest to build an empire.
That dream was never realized, but almost eight decades later, some of the artwork collected by Hitler’s agents has never been returned to the Jewish families who once owned it.
“There’s really a lot of dissatisfaction with the way a lot of countries in Europe has handled their restitution programs and the Netherlands is no exception,” Rebecca Gibson, one of Berg’s attorneys, said.
When WWII ended, the US military handed recovered artwork over to the individual countries to return to the respective owners, but Berg’s lawsuit claims that never happened with his family’s pieces.
“Under the current system, which has a lot of flaws, mainly the assumption that all art dealers, even Jewish art dealers, because their objective is to sell art, any art that they sold was sold in the ordinary course of business, which is a very flawed assumption when you’re talking about Jewish art dealers living in an occupied country under Nazi rule,” Gibson said.
Berg claims, while his grandfather and great uncle did sell the paintings to Nazi agents, the brothers were forced to under the threat that their families would be deported to concentration camps if they refused.
“It has so much historical significance," Joel Androphy, Berg’s other attorney, said. “To be able to, at least to some degree, right the wrongs that occurred during that tragic period.”
Berg’s family has tried to regain these pieces several times over the years without much success. However, his attorneys are hopeful that this federal lawsuit will secure the artwork’s return.
“We feel very confident that we are right in the law we feel very confident that they’ve been done and injustice by the Netherlands and this never should have gone this far,” Androphy said.
The artwork that once resided with Berg’s family is now worth tens of millions of dollars. Berg hopes to get this art back, to sell it, and share the money with the rest of the Katz brothers' remaining family.