A Nazi Inheritance for German Museums: Jewish Heirs Want Their Art Back

By and Andreas Wassermann

Part 2: Part II: "Brutal Moral Cudgel"

In addition, strict conditions were imposed on the fate of disputed paintings in museums. In the case of works that had been sold during the Nazi era, the museums in question were required to prove that not only had they agreed to pay a fair market value for the paintings, but that this price had in fact been paid. The problem was that for most of these works, receipts were either never issued or have since been lost -- as in the case of Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene," which was sold in 1936. Unable to provide a receipt for the work, the city of Berlin was forced to return the painting.

Many German museums lacked more than just receipts. "In the postwar years," says Naumann, "there was no awareness of injustice in German museums." In January 1999, Naumann wrote: "To my knowledge, German museums have yet to undertake any satisfactory efforts to address this concern, namely by taking precise and comprehensive inventories of artworks of dubious or questionable origin, that is, those looted by the Third Reich."

This has since changed, though not necessarily in a way Naumann would endorse. Many museums are now doing their own research as part of an effort to fend off claims for restitution. Their directors have complained about "shrewd attorneys" and the "brutal moral cudgel" they have used to back up their threats.

In fact, it is often the attorneys who encourage heirs to file claims for restitution in the first place. This was apparently the case with the Kirchner painting and other works that once belonged to the collection of Alfred Hess, a shoe manufacturer in the eastern city of Erfurt. As recently as six years ago, Hess's granddaughter, Anita Halpin, showed no interest whatsoever in her grandfather's paintings. In the meantime, she has filed restitution claims for several dozen paintings from the former Hess collection. Halpin is represented by David J. Rowland, an attorney with offices on New York's Park Avenue who specializes in restitutions.

"Subject of forced sale"

While the Berlin Senate is acting in the spirit of Naumann's earlier efforts, there is one case in which the federal government has behaved like many museum directors -- by simply refusing to return works claimed by the descendants of their former owners. Indeed, it is such a high-profile case that even German President Horst Köhler became involved.

Several years ago Juan Carlos Emden, a Chilean, demanded that the German Ministry of Finance return two valuable 18th-century paintings. Emden's grandfather, Jewish businessman Max Emden, was forced to sell the works by Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, better known as Canaletto, after emigrating from Germany to Switzerland. The German government has owned the works since 1949 (West Germany owned them until 1990). But returning the paintings to Emden, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück's bureaucrats informed Emden's attorneys in a final decision in August, was out of the question. The paintings, they argued, had not been the "subject of a forced sale."

There are many parallels between the Emden case and the Hess collection. Max Emden, an art collector who also owned works by Dutch Old Masters and French Impressionists, left Germany for good in 1933 and settled in Switzerland's Ticino Canton. He was later forced to sell the corporate empire he had left behind in Germany under less than favorable circumstances.

As a result, the Jewish emigrant supported himself in Switzerland primarily from the sale of his paintings, which he had managed to bring to safety before they could be seized by the Nazis. Hitler's art dealer, Karl Haberstock, bought the Canalettos in 1938 when Emden offered them for sale through art dealers in Munich and London. Canaletto's Baroque city views were intended to grace the "Führer Museum" Hitler had planned to build in Linz, Austria after the Nazis' "final victory."

The agreed purchase price for the Canalettos was 60,000 Swiss francs, a price Emden heir Juan Carlos calls "scandalous." To this day, no one knows whether Max Emden was even paid for the paintings. He died in Swiss exile in 1940 and the paintings became the property of the German government after World War II ended. The decorative "Zwingergraben" ended up in the dining room at Villa Hammerschmidt, which became the official residence of the German President in 1951. But current President Horst Köhler had the painting removed after being informed about its history.

Adolf -- not Alfred

Finance Minister Steinbrück's officials are apparently doing everything in their power to prevent the loss of up to 100 paintings owned by the German government, paintings experts classify as "refugee art." Juan Carlos Emden, for his part, has already made it clear that he has no plans to hang the Canalettos "above the living room couch." Indeed, major auction houses have already made their inquiries with Emden.

Hans Ottomeyer, the General Director of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, takes the same tough approach as the finance ministry. Last fall the son of Jewish dentist and collector Hans Sachs filed a claim for the remnants of an exceptional collection that once comprised 12,000 posters, and that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, ordered confiscated in 1938. About 3,500 of the posters resurfaced in East Berlin's Museum of German History after the war. Restitution of the works, Ottomeyer warned, would be "a great loss, especially if the collection is sold off piecemeal." Only after being pressured by the Chancellery did Ottomeyer agree to allow the case to be argued before the commission that had been set up for disputes.

Like Ottomeyer, Katja Schneider, the director of the National Gallery Moritzburg in the eastern city of Halle, argues "not a single painting will be returned voluntarily." Schneider also faces a claim by New York attorney Rowland. The subject of Rowland's claim is a group of Expressionist paintings from the collection of Jewish Frankfurt industrialist Ludwig Fischer. In 1924, Fischer's wife sold 24 paintings by Kirchner, Marc and Erich Heckel in return for a 20-year annuity. But by 1935 the Nazis had terminated the annuity. In addition to full payment of the annuity, Rowland is demanding the return of an oil painting by Franz Marc, "The White Cat," from the Fischer collection.

For Rowland, who represents the three Fischer heirs in the United States, the "small offer" he received from the Moritzburg museum is inadequate.

In addition to these cases, museum directors and restitution experts meeting at the Chancellery on Nov. 20 will discuss a general strategy. Because museum directors and politicians involved in cultural issues are "often overburdened," the recently retired director of the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie Museum, Christian von Holst, is pushing for the establishment of a central research office that would follow the often circuitous paths of the artworks.

It's an approach that could also benefit the major auction houses. In a classic Freudian slip, the current Christie's magazine incorrectly identifies art collector Hess, who once owned the Kirchner paintings, as Adolf -- not Alfred.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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