18th-century porcelain seized by Nazis to be auctioned in restitution effort

More than 100 items of Meissen porcelain, recovered by the famed ‘Monuments Men,’ are set to be sold next week at Sotheby’s in New York

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

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 porcelain hidden from the Nazis, acquired by Hitler and then stashed away in a salt mine before being recovered by Allied forces, will go up for sale at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York next week.

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.

A public exhibition of the porcelain will open at the auction house on September 7, a week before the auction, which is scheduled for September 14.

The 117 items in the auction — which range in estimated sale prices from $300 to $400,000 apiece — are all 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, said Sotheby’s. The entire collection today is said to be worth approximately £2 million ($2.75 million).

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 safe keeping first to Vyšší Brod Monastery in Bohemia and later to the salt mines in Bad Aussee,” said the auction house.

An Oppenheimer family portrait from the mid-1930s. (Sotheby’s)

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.

Now, 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 is being 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, said Sotheby’s.

“Sotheby’s is honored to have been chosen to offer this remarkable collection for sale, a physical testament to the connoisseurship of Franz and Margarethe Oppenheimer and a witness to the turmoil of the 20th Century,” said the auction house.

Four Meissen beakers circa 1728. (Sotheby’s)

Lucian Simmons, the worldwide head of Sotheby’s restitution department, told the Guardian that the auction has drawn a wide level of interest.

“It’s certainly not just the wonderful porcelain pieces with a perfect provenance, which has drawn the interest of potential buyers,” said Simmons. “Many have been entranced by the story behind them, which is a wonderful time capsule and for me the retelling of it has certainly been one of the most exciting aspects of working on this.”

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