Man who spent his life hunting down stolen Nazi art dies from COVID-19

David Toren, had a claim on “Two Riders on the Beach” by German Impressionist Max Liebermann, who was also Jewish.

File photo of a U.S. soldier viewing art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in church at Ellingen, Germany (photo credit: REUTERS)
File photo of a U.S. soldier viewing art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in church at Ellingen, Germany
(photo credit: REUTERS)
David Toren, 94, a retired patent lawyer who made it his life's mission to recover stolen art looted from his family by the Nazis, died from complications surrounding the novel coronavirus.
In 2014, Toren sued Germany and the state of Bavaria, with a court in Washington DC Bavaria’s Justice Ministry, for the return of paintings he says were stolen from his uncle by the Nazis in 1939 and which German authorities uncovered in 2012 among a secret collection of 1,400 art works.
Toren, had a claim on “Two Riders on the Beach” by German Impressionist Max Liebermann, who was also Jewish.
He was the heir of David Friedmann, an industrialist from Breslau who owned the painting from at least 1905 to 1939. Toren told Reuters in 2014 he could remember the picture hanging on the wall of his great uncle’s villa before the war.
Toren escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 14 but lost most of his family in the Holocaust.
Friedmann died in 1942. Toren escaped from Germany and spent the war in Sweden. His older brother reached the Netherlands and now lives in London, but their parents perished at Auschwitz.
The German government’s handling of the find was severely criticized by groups representing owners of art seized by the Nazis. Germany failed to publish a full list of the works until a court ordered it to do so.
The Liebermann painting was among the first works from the hoard to be posted by German authorities on their “Lost Art” website ( to help establish provenance.
Lawyers for Toren said Germany authorities knew he was the rightful heir of one particular painting, Max Liebermann’s “Two Riders on the Beach." By failing to disclose for nearly two years that they had found it, the authorities had “perpetuated the suffering of victims of the Holocaust."
Toren, who became blind in his later years, last saw “Two Riders on the Beach” at his uncle’s villa in what is today the Polish city of Wroclaw in 1938. He finally got the painting back a year later after the suit's filing in 2014, for his son and grandchildren to appreciate.
“Two Riders on the Beach” was one of the paintings shown to an amazed public by prosecutors in Bavaria in 2013 after they discovered a sensational modern art collection worth $1 billion in a Munich flat during a routine tax investigation.
A magazine article had leaked news of the find and forced them to go public. Tax probes are usually conducted in secret.
The art was found in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a wartime art dealer who, on the orders of Adolf Hitler, bought and sold works of “degenerate art” from museums and Jewish collectors.
The elderly German recluse whose Munich apartment contained "Two Riders on the Beach" among a secret art hoard, including masterpieces looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners in World War Two, died after a heart operation in 2014.
The art world was stunned by the re-emergence of paintings by some of the 20th century’s most famous artists that were long thought to have been lost or destroyed during World War Two.
Authorities stumbled upon Gurlitt’s trove of paintings and drawings by the likes of Marc Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso in 2012 after a routine check on a train from Switzerland turned up wads of cash, triggering a tax inquiry.
Gurlitt’s collection of 1,280 artworks was assembled by his father Hildebrand, an art dealer put in charge of selling what Adolf Hitler called “degenerate” art, and ordered to be removed from state museums to help fund the Nazis’ war effort.
Now worth an estimated 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion), the hoard remained undetected for decades in the Munich flat and a house over the Austrian border in Salzburg. Gurlitt sold pieces occasionally to finance his quiet lifestyle and his healthcare.
“I haven’t loved anything more than my pictures in my life. But hopefully it will all be cleared up soon and I will finally get my pictures back,” he told German magazine Der Spiegel in a rare interview in 2014, when he was already very frail.
Gurlitt recalled helping his father Hildebrand load a truck with some of his Renaissance and Modernist artworks to save them in wartime Dresden. He hid some works in a Bavarian aristocrat’s castle but the family said after the war that the collection had been destroyed by the heavy bombing of Dresden.
Hildebrand was arrested as a Nazi collaborator but freed because he was one-quarter Jewish. He persuaded the “Monuments Men” - a military unit set up by the Allies to save Europe’s cultural heritage, as portrayed in a movie by George Clooney - to return about 100 of his works that they had confiscated.
In his son Cornelius Gurlitt’s mind, the German state had no right to impound treasures he called the love of his life.
Cornelius agreed to cooperate with authorities to determine if any of the art had been stolen or extorted from its original owners, including Jewish collectors fleeing the Holocaust, under an agreement that permitted a task force to research the works of suspicious provenance while others were returned to him.