Venetian masterpiece by Italian artist Michele Marieschi to be offered at Sotheby’s this summer
May 28, 2017
The Graf family
Originally acquired by Heinrich (Heinz) and Anna Maria (Anny) Graf in 1937, the painting hung in the the family’s Vienna apartment – a highlight of their small but refined collection. In March 1938, the family’s lives were upended with the German annexation of Austria. Ousted from his job and under threat from the growing tensions under a dictatorial regime, Heinz and his young family were forced to flee their home. In anticipation of the forced emigration, which by then had become so commonplace in Vienna, all of the Graf’s possessions were put into storage, to be forwarded once the family settled into a new home. Having paid the substantial ‘exit tax’ demanded by the Germans, the Grafs made their way first to Italy, and then several months later to France, where they were joined by their two grandmothers in Quillan, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Heinz was confined to the notorious Camp Gurs in Southwest France – where Jews of non-French nationality were interned. Anny worked desperately to secure her husband’s release (she too was interned for a brief period), finally managing to obtain visas for the United States for all but one member of the family. Required by the terms of his Gurs camp release to leave the country immediately, Heinz was forced to leave his family behind and travel to the safety of Portugal alone. The family eventually reunited in Lisbon months later, sailing together to the United States and reaching New York on 26 May 1941.
Settling in Queens, the family rebuilt their lives, with Heinz, now ‘Henry’, finding employment again as an investment banker. Attempting to recover the belongings that they had placed in storage, Henry and Anny undertook extensive correspondence with the United States occupation forces in Germany, but to no avail. It later came to light that their possessions, including this Marieschi painting and portraits of Anny’s parents by Umberto Veruda, had been seized by the Nazi regime in 1940 and subsequently sold at auction. Despite years of searching, all efforts to locate their possessions failed, with both Henry and Anny passing away without having ever seen their paintings again.
The current Possessor
The exact whereabouts of the painting from 1940 to 1952 is not known. However, in 1952 it was acquired by Edward Speelman who purchased the painting from Henry James Alfred Spiller (1890 – 1966), a frequent purchaser at auction during WWII.
The current possessor bought the painting in 1953, unaware of the painting’s history and has had unbroken enjoyment of the work for more than 60 years. In 2015, the decision was made to reach out to the Graf family to resolve all title issues before moving forward with a sale.
Following the discovery of this painting nearly 15 years ago, and nearly 80 years after Henry and Anny Graf last saw the painting, a settlement between the heirs of the Graf family and the current possessors was successfully negotiated by Art Recovery International last December, leading to the subsequent sale of this remarkable work this summer.
Painted in 1739 – 40, La Punta della Dogana e san Giorgio Maggiore is a rare example of a unique work by Marieschi, who often created multiple paintings from the same viewpoint. Depicting the Dogana with the Church of San Giorgio across the Bacino in the distance, and animated by a host of colourful figures and gondolas in the foreground, this painting is notable for its broad panorama and the depth of its composition, and is one of Marieschi’s most successful works. Encouraged by the success of the great Venetian artist Canaletto in the genre of vedute, Marieschi adopted a very personal and instantly recognisable style in the genre, characterised by rapid brushwork, richness of colour, and shimmering effects of light.
Richard Aronowitz, Sotheby’s Head of Department for Restitution, said, “Having followed the story and been involved in the discussions of this marvellous painting for more than a decade, I am delighted that its turbulent history has now been resolved with a settlement between the Graf heirs and the current possessors, and that it will be offered as one of the highlights of Sotheby’s summer sale. Restitution settlements are understandably difficult to resolve, so it is always very rewarding when you are able to help bring a case to a positive conclusion.”
Henry and Anny Graf’s son-in-law, Stephen Tauber, commented wistfully, “Michele Marieschi created this magnificent view of the Dogana to give pleasure. We are sad that Heinz and Anny Graf enjoyed that privilege for just a few months after they had bought the painting with so much anticipation. We are glad, however, that after so many years members of our family are finally able to become reacquainted with the painting, which will surely give pleasure to others for years to come.
Christopher Marinello, Founder of Art Recovery International said, “I commend the parties involved in this decades old dispute in reaching an amicable accord. I strongly encourage collectors, dealers, and institutions to bring known or suspected Nazi-looted works out from the shadows and resolve these disputes discreetly without the need for costly and embarrassing litigation. Facing these issues head on takes courage and, in some cases, sacrifice on the part of a good acquirer. However, leaving these issues for the next generation to deal with is never the answer.