Nazi-Looted Cranach Painting to be Auctioned at Christie’s After Returning to Its Rightful Owner

A long-lost portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder has returned to its rightful owner, the heirs of Fritz Gutmann, after its recent discovery in America. Facilitated by Christie’s, the restitution of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, has taken nearly 80 years since it was looted by Nazi agents in the Netherlands in May 1940. The portrait will be offered at Christie’s Old Masters auction on 19 April in New York and it is expected to fetch US$1m-2m or even higher.

Painted in the 1530s, the portrait depicts John Fredrick I (1503-1554), an electoral prince and Head of the Schmalkaldic League of Germany, who was also the artist’s greatest patron and close friend. Cranach portrayed John Frederick half-length and in three-quarter profile, with his arms slightly cropped along the left and right edges to heighten his monumentality. Exuding confidence, John Frederick clad in splendorous attire gazes resolutely ahead, his commanding figure filling the picture plane.

Fritz Gutmann was a Dutch banker and art collector

The painting was last seen in public in Rotterdam in 1938, when it was on loan to the Museum Boijmans from the renowned art collector Fritz Gutmann. Born in Berlin, Gutmann (1886-1944) was the son of the founder of the Dresdner Bank. He went on to establish a private bank in Amsterdam after the First World War and settled with his family in a beautiful home named ‘Bosbeek’, 20 miles west of Amsterdam.

Fritz Gutmann's Bosbeek in the Netherlands

The interior of Fritz Gutmann's Bosbeek

As Fritz Gutmann’s was expanding his art collection considerably with a growing interest in male portraits from the German Renaissance, he added Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of John Fredrick I to his home in 1922. Following the occupation of The Netherlands in May 1940, Nazi agents gradually stripped ‘Bosbeek’ of all its possessions, with many works acquired for Hitler and Goering. Fritz and his wife Louise were arrested in 1943 and died in the camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, respectively, a year later.

Louise Gutmann died in Auschwitz concentration camp

Photo taken in Auschwitz concentration camp

The children of the Gutmann family, who had been staying in relative safety of Italy and England, embarked on a journey to trace and recover the painting, which its whereabout was unknown after 1940. The quest was continued by their heirs, who liaised with restitution agencies after the Second World War and reported lost works to Interpol.

Following an approach by persons who had acquired the painting, and who acknowledged and addressed the losses suffered by the family at the hands of the Nazis, Christie’s facilitated a return to the Gutmann heirs. The return of the painting honours international initiatives to address the ongoing challenge of Holocaust-era assets.

Nick Goodmand (on the left) and Simon Goodman (on the right) holding a reclaimed Edgas Degas landscape

Simon Goodman, Fritz Gutmann’s grandson, was thrilled about the return, ‘I have spent years hunting for this marvellous painting. Among those pieces still missing, from my grandfather Fritz Gutmann’s collection, this was the piece I was the most doubtful of ever recovering. My family are thrilled by its discovery. We are also extremely grateful to the people who brought it forward and to Christie’s for facilitating its return.’

Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar). Portrait of John Fredrick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554).

Lot no.: 7
Size: 62.8 x 39.7 cm

  • Christian Wilhelm Schweitzer (1781-1856), Minister of State, Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1843-1848), Weimar, 1851.
  • Joseph Neustätter, Vienna, c. 1880.
  • with Galerie Helbing, Munich, 1922.
  • with Kurt Bachstitz, The Hague.
  • Fritz Gutmann, Heemstede (Haarlem) (1886-1944), purchased from the above 1922, until dispossessed in the Netherlands as a result of Nazi persecution.
  • Private collection, United States.
  • Returned to the heirs of Fritz Gutmann, 2018, pursuant to a settlement agreement between the parties which resolves any dispute over title.

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 2,000,000

Sale details:

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Old Masters Part 1
Date:  19 April 2018|10am