Carl Spitzweg's "Fiat Justitita" is among the art world's most iconic portraits of Justice; the 19th century painting depicts a proudly erect, blindfolded figure on a pedestal, prepared to solemnly weigh evidence on a set of scales.
Though Spitzweg was a leading representative of the bourgeois Biedermeier school of painting, the fate of "Fiat Justitia" in the turbulent twentieth century has been laden with bitter, post-modern political ironies. The German government has been in wrongful possession of the painting since the 1930's, when its Jewish owner held a fire-sale to finance an attempt to escape the Nazis.
On Thursday, nine months after independent investigators formally cast doubt on the government's acquisition of the painting, the German finance ministry announced that the painting will be returned to the heirs of art collector Leo Bendel, the original owner.
The dubious Nazi-extorted transaction of the 1930's had entirely disappeared from the record books until a contemporary Bendel descendent, intrigued by family records, hired a team of researchers to investigate the ownership of the painting. When the team, headed by historian Monika Tratzkow, presented their findings to the office of the president, the painting was removed from display and the government began an investigation of its own.
Tratzkow's research showed that Bendel sold the painting on June 15, 1937, to a gallery in Munich for 16,000 reichsmarks to pay for his family's escape to Austria. Just nine months later, the painting was bought at the behest of Adolf Hitler for a planned museum in Linz for 25,000 reichsmarks -- a clear indication that Bendel's persecution by the Nazis was a factor in both the sale and the low price he received.
Despite his conversion to Catholicism, Bendel was rounded up by the Nazis in Vienna and deported to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died in 1940. Else Bendel, Leo's wife, managed to survive the war in extreme poverty in Vienna, but her request to retrieve "Fiat Justitita" was rejected by post-war German authorities, who claimed she lacked sufficient proof that her husband had, in fact, owned the artwork. The painting was subsequently acquired by the office of the German president in 1961 and was prominently displayed in a villa in the former capital city Bonn.
Germany claims that its acquisition of the painting was not in bad faith, but rather a simple error of judgment. But, Gunnar Schnabel, property lawyer and co-author with Tratzkow of the recently published book "Nazi Looted Art," is not convinced. "First of all, all the documents after the war were clearly falsified to cover-up Bendel's ownership of the painting," he says.
Schnabel also suggests that the German government has failed to uphold the so-called Washington Principles; at an international conference in Washington in 1998, Germany and other countries agreed to investigate the origins of its art collections and return those works that were acquired by Nazi confiscation and extortion.
"I'm astounded, absolutely astounded, that an independent group had to be brought in to root this out," Schnabel says. "Then the governmental bureaucracy arrogantly continued its own investigation for another nine months."
Nonetheless, Bendel's heirs are committed to reassembling the art collection lost at the hands of the Nazis; at least one of Bendel's paintings, another Spitzweg, is in the hands of a prominent German company whose founder collaborated with the Nazi regime.
So far, efforts to recoup that work have been rebuffed by the company. But Schnabel suggests that eventually the corporation will be shamed into returning the confiscated property.
Indeed, shame has proven a powerful weapon in the effort to stop the trade in Nazi looted art. US auction houses have become particularly careful about investigating the pedigree of artworks they plan to sell and there are numerous cases of doubtful pieces being pulled off the auction block. Auction houses in Europe are slowly beginning to follow suit. With more and more attention being focused on art restitutions, the German government has asked state museums to investigate the provenance of all their works.
But it has done little to finance that effort. According to Schnabel, Germany only finalized its decision to return "Fiat Justitita" after the Bendel heirs threatened to sue the German president in an American court. "Of course, we prefer to do these things peacefully," Schnabel says. "But, we're not afraid to get tough."
"Fiat Justitita" is only the latest Nazi-looted work to be returned to its rightful owner. Other countries have waged and lost bitter court battles trying to keep their hold on fugitive art; Austria was recently forced to relinquish a number of Gustav Klimt paintings, but not before a messy and lengthy legal battle.
Unless Germany begins more stringently investigating its art collections, the government may not be able to avoid a public scandal for very much longer: "I really predict that this is just the beginning," Schnabel says.
While it will take some time before "Fiat Justitita" is returned to the Bendel family, the major obstacles have been definitively cleared. The heirs will probably use the interim to decide what to do with the painting. If previous auctions are any indication, they could stand to make a big profit.