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 some displayed at Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne, 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' Munich apartment in 2012.
Michael Hulton, of San Francisco, 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 defendants and the museum could not immediately be reached for comment after business hours. The Hultons' lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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 Nazis took power in Germany.
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.
Many lawsuits over art said to be looted by Nazis, including the Hultons', say the defendants consented to U.S. court jurisdiction because they sell catalogs in the United states.
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)