Two stunning vases stolen by the Nazis 80 years ago were returned to the heirs of their original owners at a ceremony in Berlin Thursday after a joint effort by the American embassy and an FBI art crime team.
The vases, which the FBI said were worth about $120,000 today, belonged to the family of Harry Fuld, a German Jew who founded the first modern telephone system in the country, the Frankfurt-based H. Fuld & Co. Telefon und Telegraphenwerke AG.
“Finding ways to bring small measures of justice to the victims of the Holocaust and their families, even after so many years of injustice, is a priority of the Trump Administration,” Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, told Fox News on Saturday. “From the very beginning, President Trump instructed his team to be aggressive in this work. Returning these Nazi stolen works of art to their owners’ families was a group effort by the team at the US Embassy in Berlin, the FBI, German private citizens and many others.”
He continued: “We hope this one success story will encourage others to keep researching and pushing auction houses and governments to return the thousands of other Nazi stolen items on the market to their rightful owners.”
According to the FBI, Harry and his wife, Lucie Mayer Fuld, lived in Germany in the 1930s. Harry died while on a trip to Switzerland in 1932.
After the Nazis took power in 1933, the regime seized “Lucie’s bank accounts and placing an exit tax on her if she left the country. She fled Germany in 1939 with only a few of her possessions, leaving behind her home and much of the artwork in it,” the FBI said. Lucie Fuld died in 1966.
In 1940, an auction house in Berlin listed items for sale from the Fulds’ estate, the FBI said.
The agency noted that the Nazi regime “determined proceeds from the auction satisfied the exit tax they put on Lucie. The work was listed as Lot 198 at the auction, described as ‘two bronze vases, fire gilded, two-tone, French, Louis XVI, 1780-1890.’”
The vases subsequently found their way to an auction in London in 1997, and again in 2000.
“The works were eventually consigned to Christie’s Auction House in New York City. The auction house confirmed both pieces as unrestituted property through its restitution due diligence process, and worked with the FBI to secure the vases,” said the FBI.
Special Agent Christopher McKeogh of the FBI’s Art and Antiquities Crimes office in the New York Field Office played a key role in the recovery of the vases. McKeogh has more than 15 years’ experience in investigating art crime.
After he became ambassador in May 2018, Grenell doggedly pursued the successful deportation of Jakiw Palij, the last known Nazi war criminal living in America, to Germany. Palij, who was a guard at the Nazis’ Trawniki concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, 25 miles southeast of Lublin, immigrated to the United States in 1949, and lived in Queens, New York.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on human rights in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @BenWeinthal