By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Heirs to the German Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim on Monday sued the German state of Bavaria, seeking the return of eight paintings by Max Beckmann, Juan Gris and Paul Klee that they said were looted by the Nazis.
According to the complaint by Michael Hulton and his stepmother Penny, the widow of Flechtheim's nephew and heir Henry Hulton, Flechtheim was forced to leave the paintings behind when he fled Berlin for Paris in May 1933 to escape Nazi persecution, four months after Adolf Hitler seized power.
The Hultons said Bavaria and the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen (Bavarian State Paintings Collections) have refused their demands for the paintings, including several displayed at Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne museum, despite its public commitment to "fair and just" treatment for Nazi-looted art.
They said some of the paintings may have passed through the hands of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of four dealers the Nazis let sell "degenerate" art they disliked, and who had amassed a cache of roughly 1,400 works discovered in his reclusive son Cornelius's Munich apartment in 2012.
Michael Hulton, a San Francisco doctor, and Penny Helton, of Hertfordshire, England, believe the defendants cannot claim ownership "rooted in the seizure of Flechtheim's property in violation of international law," their complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan said.
"The paintings would have remained accessible to Flechtheim but for the climate at the time," the Hultons' lawyer, Nicholas O'Donnell, said in an interview. "The state-level program of Aryanizing Jewish businesses made the confiscation possible."
Andreas Frischknecht, a New York-based lawyer representing the defendants, declined to comment. The defendants could not immediately be reached for comment after German business hours.
According to the complaint, the eight paintings include Beckmann's "Duchess of Malvedi" (1926), "Still Life with Cigar Box" (1926), "Quappi in Blue" (1926), "Dream—Chinese Fireworks" (1927), "Champagne Still Life" (1929) and "Still Life with Studio Window" (1931); Gris' "Cruche et Verre Sur un Table" (1916) and Klee's "Grenzen des Verstandes" (1927).
Monday's lawsuit joins others seeking to reclaim art taken, sold or left behind after the Nazis took power in Germany. Many such lawsuits are filed in Manhattan, and say the defendants consented to that jurisdiction because they sell catalogs there.
Flechtheim died impoverished in London at age 58 in 1937, while his widow Betti, sometimes rendered as "Betty," committed suicide in 1941 rather than report for deportation, the complaint said.
Cornelius Gurlitt died in May 2014.
The case is Hulton et al v, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-09360.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby and Jonathan Oatis)