The Flechtheim Paintings: Inside Germany's Most Complicated Art Restitution Battle

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The legendary Jewish gallery owner Alfred Flechtheim lost dozens of precious paintings during the Nazi era. For years, his heirs have been fighting for their rights to many paintings that now hang in Germany's top museums. It is one of the most complicated art restitution cases the country has ever seen.

The city of Berlin has affixed a memorial plaque to the front of the magnificent art nouveau building on Bleibtreu Strasse. It reads: "Alfred Flechtheim, art dealer, publisher and friend of modern art, lived in this building from 1923 to 1933. In 1933, Alfred Flechtheim was forced to emigrate. He died in exile in London."

Flechtheim must have experienced good times in his nine-room apartment, where he played host to the stars of the Weimar Republic -- actors, artists and athletes. But then the dark days began.

Michael Hulton, his grand nephew, still refers to him as "Uncle Alfred" today. Hulton, 66, an affable, soft-spoken man, now lives in San Francisco. His grandparents came from Berlin, and his grandmother was Flechtheim's sister-in-law. The family name was still Hulisch at the time. Hulton grew up in London and later studied medicine at Cambridge.

'I Want Justice'

For the last four years, Hulton has made regular trips to Berlin, where he rents a room at Pension Gudrun, in the house next door on Bleibtreu Strasse. "I want justice," says Hulton.

He is referring to his inheritance, which consists of works of art that Flechtheim owned and either went missing or had to be sold during the Nazi era. They consist of 11 paintings and six works on paper, which are now owned by German museums, including works by Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee. Paintings from the Flechtheim collection also hang in American museums. Hulton and his attorney, Markus Stötzel, estimate the market value of the estate at €100 million ($124 million).

This case of art restitution is probably the biggest and most complicated one of its kind in Germany.

It's complicated because, although all statutes of limitations expired long ago, Germany and 43 other countries have committed themselves to restitution. It's also complicated because Berlin's state government, led by the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, has decreed that German museums must return works of art that were lost during the Nazi period "for reasons of persecution."

And what complicates it even further is that Bernd Neumann, the federal commissioner for culture and the media, constantly insists that Germany "stands unequivocally behind its moral responsibility" and points out that "fair and just solutions" must be found. To date, however, Michael Hulton has received compensation from a German museum for only one relatively insignificant painting from the Flechtheim estate.

But what really makes the case complicated is that it is not entirely clear how extensive the estate actually is, which paintings were in fact confiscated or were sold out of necessity, and when exactly the paintings were sold, that is, before or after the Nazis seized power.

'Something Crazy About Art'

Flechtheim opened his first gallery in Düsseldorf in 1913, and he later managed galleries in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna. As one of the pioneers of modern art in Germany, he once wrote: "There is something crazy about art. It's a passion stronger than gambling, alcohol and women."

But during the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the misery of Nazism and the war, virtually all documents disappeared from his gallery. An estate doesn't exist.

Flechtheim was born into a wealthy family in the northwestern German city of Münster in 1878. He completed a business apprenticeship, but his interest in art prevailed.

His parents arranged a marriage in 1910, partly to quell the rumors that their son was a homosexual. He married Betty Goldschmidt, who was from one of the richest Jewish families in nearby Dortmund. During their honeymoon in Paris, Flechtheim invested a large part of her dowry in Cubist art -- to the dismay of his in-laws, who managed to achieve a retroactive separation of property.

Flechtheim, together with the "Sonderbund" artists' association, organized exhibits of contemporary art, including paintings by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch and Picasso.

A good half year later Flechtheim went to war, serving in the Westphalian Uhlan Regiment, but not on the front. His gallery collapsed and his inventory was sold at auction in Berlin.

Life of the Party

He reopened his Düsseldorf gallery at Easter in 1919, this time on the stylish Königsallee. It was then that he caught "the publishing bug," as he later recalled, publishing graphics editions, books and a magazine called Der Querschnitt (The Cross Section). The publication, which an editor called the "magazine of current eternal values," dealt with subjects like art, sports and dance.

Der Querschnitt was the zeitgeist magazine of the Golden '20s, and Flechtheim was among those who, in the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic, was able to experience the intoxicating effects of culture, luxury and a libertine lifestyle.

He opened a gallery in Berlin in October 1921, and the parties he hosted there were legendary. Lotte von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the wife of a banker, made sandwiches, and alcohol producers donated the liquor. Flechtheim himself dressed in traditional Andalusian clothes and danced the flamenco.

Thea Sternheim, the wife of successful playwright Carl Sternheim, made friends with Flechtheim early on. "How thrilling it is to meet a Jew," she said, "who doesn't hide his heritage but is actually proud of it, and who says things like: 'Don't you think that King David was more feudal than some fly-by-night Hohenzollern?'"

A French journalist bluntly described him by using a pejorative word to describe a despicable man. He could be loud-mouthed and vulgar. Flechtheim used pejoratives himself to describe the painter Otto Dix. Dix took his revenge by painting a portrait of Flechtheim that depicted him as a money-grubbing man.

Even before becoming an art dealer, Flechtheim had bought works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Cézanne, Matisse and other French painters. And now he was also representing young German artists, including Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and George Grosz.

When he gave a party to celebrate his 50th birthday in the spring of 1928, at the Hotel Kaiserhof on Wilhelmplatz in Berlin, friends made a commemorative publication that contained tributes by Joachim Ringelnatz, Ernest Hemingway and other authors. Max Beckmann, George Grosz and other artists contributed drawings. The party guests included Tilla Durieux, the poet Gottfried Benn, the publisher Hermann Ullstein and the boxer Max Schmeling, who said: "If I were a painter, I would want Flechtheim to represent me."

Target of the Nazis

By now, the art dealer had opened additional branches of his gallery. But the 1929 global economic crisis put a stop to his expansion, and soon the Nazis had declared him an enemy. When the Nazi Party magazine Illustrierter Beobachter (Illustrated Observer) ran a cover story called "The Race Question is the Key to World History," it featured a portrait of Flechtheim on the cover. A populist politician with an interest in art castigated the "insolent Jewish-Negro contamination of the soul of the German people." In March 1933, members of the SA, a Nazi paramilitary group, forcibly ended an auction in Düsseldorf in which Flechtheim was participating.

During this period, Flechtheim's Aryan business partner Alex Vömel took over the Düsseldorf gallery. Vömel eventually joined the SA. To pay the gallery's debts, he pawned works of art, including some from Flechtheim's private collection, and sold sculptures to Switzerland. After the war, the former Nazi Party member Vömel claimed to have almost no recollection of Flechtheim and even filed an application for reparations, which was rejected.

Half a year after the Nazis had come to power, Flechtheim was destitute and living in Paris. "What horrifies me the most is the senseless fear that has taken hold of Flechtheim," Thea Sternheim wrote in July 1933. "In a completely empty restaurant, he looks left and right, even during the most harmless conversations, to make sure that no one is listening to us."

A liquidator sold off the contents of his Berlin gallery. In Paris, Flechtheim tried to work for his old business partner, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. He also organized exhibitions in London for artists ostracized in Germany.

He suffered the last blow of fate in London. After slipping and falling on an icy street, he went to a hospital, where he contracted blood poisoning from a rusty nail on his bed. His leg was amputated, but it was too late. Flechtheim died on March 9, 1937, in "misery, pain and despair," as his English acquaintances recalled.

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