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18th-century porcelain seized by Nazis smashes expectations in auction sale

Hoard of Dresden antiques, restored to descendants of couple who escaped Germany, sells for over $13 milllion at Sotheby’s in New York

A rare Meissen armorial tea and coffee service made for the Morosini family, dated 1731. (Sotheby's)
A rare Meissen armorial tea and coffee service made for the Morosini family, dated 1731. (Sotheby's)

A collection of 18th-century porcelains that was seized by the Nazis and stored in a salt mine before being recovered by Allied forces was sold by descendants of the original Jewish owners at auction last week for millions of pounds, far exceeding expectations.

The hoard of 117 items of Dresden porcelain fetched over $13.6 million at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, the Daily Mail newspaper reported on Wednesday. It had been expected to make some $2 million, but nearly every item was sold for more than the asking price.

All are rare Meissen porcelain, dating back to the early 18th century. The collection was first curated in the late 1920s by Franz and Margarethe Oppenheimer, a Jewish couple living in Berlin, according to Sotheby’s.

The proceeds of the sale will benefit the heirs of the family that purchased the collection before the Holocaust, and fled Europe in the late 1930s with few to none of their worldly belongings.

“We cannot comment on [the Oppenheimer family’s] motives, but they are a group of individuals and it is quite common for restituted collections to be sold to convert the inheritance into a form that is more easily distributed amongst the descendants of a victim of Nazi persecution,” said Lucian Simmons, worldwide head of restitution at Sotheby’s, according to the report.

Over half the items were bought by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which had recently returned many of the pieces to the Oppenheimer descendants, the Mail reported.

Topping the sale items was a 17-inch high Meissen clock from 1727 that fetched $1.5 million. It had been expected to sell for some $400,000.

A Meissen armorial tea and coffee service dating from 1731 was sold for $1.3 million, according to the report.

According to the auction house, the Oppenheimers fled Nazi persecution in Berlin around December 1936, heading first to Vienna and then to Budapest.

The collection ended up in the hands of Fritz Mannheimer, although “it is not known precisely when” he acquired them, said Sotheby’s. Mannheimer died in 1939, and the collection was acquired for Adolf Hitler in 1941.

In order to protect Hitler’s art collection from Allied bombing, the porcelain was “moved for safekeeping first to Vyšší Brod Monastery in Bohemia and later to the salt mines in Bad Aussee,” said the auction house.

Following the end of World War II, the porcelain was eventually discovered by Allied Monuments Officers, whose work was celebrated in the 2014 film “The Monuments Men.”

After the collection was recovered, it was sent back to the Netherlands and eventually passed into the ownership of Dutch State holdings. According to Sotheby’s, some of the porcelain “was held as property available for restitution” while other items were transferred to the Rijksmuseum, a Dutch national museum in Amsterdam.

Close to 85 years after the Oppenheimer family fled Germany — setting out on a journey that took them to Austria, Hungary, Sweden and Colombia before they reached New York — the porcelain was sold in order to provide restitution to the family’s heirs. The decision was made earlier this year by the Restitution Commission of the Netherlands, Sotheby’s said ahead of the sale.

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