Hearst Castle returns art to heirs of German Jewish owners

Two 16th-century oil paintings that had been on display for decades at Hearst Castle were returned April 10 to the heirs of its original Jewish owners, who were forced to flee Nazi Germany and sell the art.

The Renaissance-era paintings belonged to Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer, two art dealers who were forced to liquidate their Berlin gallery in 1935, when Germany required Jewish citizens to report their assets to the government. Jakob Oppenheimer died in 1941 in France, where the couple had fled, and his wife later died at Auschwitz after being captured by Germans in a French hospital.

The return of the paintings to two Oppenheimer grandchildren, 73-year-old Peter Bloch of Florida and 73-year-old Inge Blackshear of Argentina, was the United States’ 25th settlement involving repatriation of artwork taken from Jews by the Nazis, said Erik Ledbetter, director of international programs and ethics at the American Association of Museums.

“The Nazis had a morbid fascination with committing their crimes under the cover of legitimacy,” Ledbetter said. “They had a twisted genius for inventing legal mechanisms which seemed to be legitimate but in fact were mechanisms of theft, and that’s what happened to the Oppenheimers.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger presents the two paintings to Peter Bloch (left) and Inge Blackshear, grandchildren of the paintings’ original owners. photo/peter grigsby

Heirs of artwork stolen by the Nazis have been reunited with pieces displayed at some the nation’s most prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Hearst Castle paintings were spotted by Eva Sterzing, the family’s Paris-based attorney who saw a 1976 pamphlet featuring artwork at the San Simeon estate built by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. They had been on display in the estate’s Italian-style Doge Suite.

Museum officials were reviewing the collection in 2007 when they were contacted about a possible claim.

Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum, said three paintings were purchased in 1935 from the I.S. Goldschmidt Gallery in Berlin. He said Hearst was likely unaware of their origin and “if he had found out, even after he purchased them, Mr. Hearst in all indications would have returned them.”

The Hearst Corporation deeded the artworks to the state in 1972, when the castle and its contents became part of the state park system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended the ceremony April 10, said the theft of the Oppenheimer’s paintings was “the beginning of far greater offenses against the innocent and against humanity” by the Nazis, adding that “a wrong cannot be fully righted when the victims have long since passed away.”

Photographic reproductions of the two returned paintings, a portrait of a man with a book believed to be the work of Venetian artist Giovanni Cariani and a portrait of a nobleman attributed to the school of Venetian master Jacopo Tintoretto, will be hung next week at Hearst Castle. A third painting, a portrait of a woman, will remain at the estate under an agreement with the Oppenheimer heirs.

Blackshear, who moved to Argentina with her family when she was 5, said the heirs planned to sell both works and split the proceeds.

“With this, my grandchildren will be able to go to a very good school, and I am so happy and so thankful,” she said.