Returned to its rightful owners after nearly 80 years

In April, Christie’s auctioned an important and long-lost portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder that had been recently returned to the heirs of Fritz Gutmann


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

Missing for nearly 80 years before its recent rediscovery in America, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony  will be offered in the Old Masters  auction on 19 April at Christie’s, which has facilitated the return of this important work to its rightful owners.

The painting was last publicly displayed 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 who went on to establish a private bank in Amsterdam after the First World War, settling with his family in a beautiful home named ‘Bosbeek’, 20 miles west of Amsterdam.

During the 1920s, Fritz Gutmann’s art collection grew considerably, incorporating a wide variety of works ranging from the early 15th to the late 19th century, from Memling to Degas. But one period appealed to him in particular, the German Renaissance, and most especially male portraits. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of John Fredrick I, called John Frederick the Magnanimous, arrived at ‘Bosbeek’ late in 1922.

Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar), Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554), half-length. Oil on panel, unframed. 24¾ x 15⅝ in (62.8 x 39.7 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-2,000,000. This work is offered in the Old Masters sale on 19 April at Christie’s in New York

As the peace of the 1920s gave way to the turbulence of the Thirties, Fritz Gutmann and his wife Louise insisted their children stay in the relative safety of Italy and England. ‘My grandfather and grandmother, Louise von Landau, might have escaped what was to come,’ reflects the author Simon Goodman. ‘However by 1940 they had run out of options.’ 

The Gutmann collection was a particular focus of interest for the Nazi high command and its agents. Following the occupation of The Netherlands in May 1940, the Gutmanns endured a prolonged period of house arrest, during which time Nazi agents gradually stripped ‘Bosbeek’ of all its possessions, with many works acquired for Hitler and Goering. Fritz and Louise were arrested in 1943 and died in the camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, respectively, a year later.

While the exact path of this painting after 1940 is unknown, the quest to trace and recover it has been taken on by two generations of the Gutmann family, beginning with Fritz Gutmann’s children, Bernard and Lily, and continued by their heirs, who liaised with restitution agencies after the Second World War and reported lost works to Interpol. More recently, the Cranach picture was reported as a war loss to the German Lost Art database and is listed on the Monuments Men Foundation’s list of most wanted works of art.

In 2015, Simon Goodman, Fritz Gutmann’s grandson, described the dispersal of his family’s collection, including this picture, in his acclaimed book The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis.

‘Moments like this are what continues to make our job fascinating and exciting’ — Francois de Poortere, Head of Old Master Paintings at Christie’s

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.

Simon Goodman, owner of Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, says, ‘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.’

Monica Dugot, International Director of Restitution at Christie’s, describes reconnecting the heirs of Fritz Gutmann with this long-missing picture as ‘a great privilege.’ As well as finally bringing this marvellous Cranach to light, she expressed delight that Christie’s has been ‘able to facilitate a dialogue between the most recent owners and the Gutmann family that ultimately ended in this settlement.’

‘Importantly,’ she adds, ‘we hope that the reappearance of this painting demonstrates that with goodwill, perseverance and collaboration, amicable and fair solutions can be found in resolving complex restitution cases and losses due to Nazi persecution, even after so many years.’

This painting is one of Cranach’s most refined depictions of the Elector John Frederick

The portrait, painted in the 1530s, depicts John Frederick I (1503-1554), an electoral prince and Head of the Schmalkaldic League of Germany, clad in splendorous attire. The last Elector in the Ernestine Saxon line, John Frederick was an ardent supporter of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and is considered to be one of the founders of the University of Wittenberg. He married Sibylle of Cleves in September 1526, whom Cranach also portrayed on numerous occasions. This painting is one of Cranach’s most refined depictions of the Elector John Frederick, who at the time it was painted was the artist’s greatest patron and close friend.

‘Moments like this are what continues to make our job fascinating and exciting,’ states Francois de Poortere, Head of Old Master Paintings at Christie’s. ‘It has been extraordinary to witness the discovery of this important work by Lucas Cranach the Elder and work with the exemplary people who brought it to our attention and wanted to do the right thing and reunite the painting with its rightful owners. This remarkable survival continues to celebrate Cranach’s innovation and unique work, and reacquaints us with a painting previously known only from black and white photographs.’

Simon Goodman has dedicated many years to researching the lost collection, successfully reclaiming many works for his family.  He continues to seek a number of significant Old Master and Impressionist paintings.

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