SACRAMENTO (AP) - In 1933, Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer were among Berlin's most successful art dealers, making them a target of the Nazi campaign against Jews.
Forced to flee Germany to escape arrest, the Oppenheimers abandoned their gallery of paintings, antique jewelry and other fine objects to seek safety in France. While relatives managed to keep the gallery open for a time, many of the objects were liquidated two years later in a forced sale.
On Friday, 74 years after they were confiscated by the Nazis, two of the gallery paintings were returned to the Oppenheimer family by the state of California. The ceremony in the state capital culminated a two-year investigation that traced the paintings to the walls of Hearst Castle, the grand estate along California's central coast that is now a state park.
Oppenheimer grandson Peter Bloch, who traveled from his home in Boynton Beach, Fla., said he was surprised to learn that some of his grandparents' artwork was discovered at one of California's most popular tourist destinations.
"It's with a lot of emotion when I think of what my parents and grandparents had to go through," Bloch said after Friday's ceremony at the Leland Stanford Mansion in downtown Sacramento.
Investigators discovered the Renaissance paintings had been sold in a forced liquidation auction, two years after the Oppenheimer's left the gallery in the hands of their son-in-law, Ivan Emmanuel Bloch, who remained in Berlin for another seven years. At the time, Germany required Jewish citizens to report their assets to the government.
Bloch said neither his grandparents nor parents received any of the proceeds from the sale, which were taken by the German government.
Jakob Oppenheimer was destitute when he died in France in 1941, and his wife died two years later at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Three of their children survived the war, fleeing with their families to the U.S., Argentina and France. A fourth, an adopted son, was killed fighting with the French.
The 16th century, oil-on-canvas paintings include a portrait of a man with a book and a necklace of shells around his shoulders that may be the work of Venetian artist Giovanni Cariani. Another is a portrait of nobleman Alvise Vendramin that is attributed to the school of another Venetian master, Jacopo Tintoretto.
Both were hung in the Italian style Doge Suite at Hearst Castle, where newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst put his most famed visitors, including Winston Churchill and President Calvin Coolidge.
A third painting, of Venus and Cupid attributed to the school of Venetian artist Paris Bordonen, will remain at Hearst Castle under an agreement with the Oppenheimer heirs.
Bloch, 73, and another Oppenheimer grandchild, Inge Blackshear of Buenos Aires, Argentina, took possession of the two pieces on behalf of the heirs' estate.
Blackshear, 73, who moved to Argentina with her family when she was 5, thanked the "people of California" for returning the paintings. She said the heirs planned to sell both works and split the proceeds.
"When we started in Argentina, I've never seen somebody work as hard as my mother. We had a very hard time," she said during Friday's ceremony. "With this, my grandchildren will be able to go to a very good school, and I am so happy and so thankful."
Friday's ceremony marked the 25th settlement in the U.S. 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 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. museums began investigating the heritage of their collections after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Heirs of artwork stolen by the Nazis have been reunited with pieces that have been 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 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."
The Oppenheimer paintings were spotted by the family's Paris-based attorney, who saw a 1976 pamphlet featuring artwork at the estate built by Hearst in San Simeon, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Over the past 20 years, the family has recovered about a dozen pieces of art that was confiscated from the Berlin gallery and found its way to museums and private collections.
Hearst filled his 165-room castle with 25,000 pieces of art - a fraction of his collection spread among his six estates. The publishing tycoon often used professional art buyers.
In 1935, they purchased the three paintings from the I.S. Goldschmidt Gallery in Berlin and likely were unaware of their origin, said Hoyt Fields, director of the Hearst Castle museum.
"If he had found out, even after he purchased them, Mr. Hearst in all indications would have returned them," he said.
The three paintings were deeded to the state by the Hearst Corp. in 1972, when the castle and its contents became part of the state park system.
Museum officials were in the midst of reviewing the collection in 2007 when they were contacted by the Oppenheimer family's attorney about a possible claim. The attorney, Eva Sterzing, traveled from Paris to attend Friday's event.
"Of course, a wrong cannot be fully righted when the victims have long since passed away," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said during the ceremony. "This theft of Jewish property was an early stage of the Nazi plan and the beginning of far greater offenses against the innocent and against humanity."
Photographic reproductions of the two returned paintings will be hung next week at Hearst Castle. Tour guides will be instructed to tell the story to the thousands who visit the landmark every year.
"It will give people from around the world a chance to learn about the Holocaust, learn about the different forms of persecution the Jews of Europe were subjected to," said Ledbetter, of the museum association.
Bloch said he and the other heirs wanted Hearst Castle to keep one of the paintings so the more than 1 million visitors who visit each year would learn about their grandparents and the Holocaust.
"What better way is there to educate the world about what had occurred when there's nations that are claiming the Holocaust never existed?" Bloch said.
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