The letter, postmarked two Thursdays ago in Washington, wasn't likely to be welcomed by its recipient in Munich's state chancellery. The document bore the grand blue letterhead of the US House of Representatives and was signed by 29 members of Congress -- and demanded that Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer facilitate a dialogue between his state's museums and Jewish families who still suspect the institutions of harboring Nazi-looted art.
These people, the letter read, were still waiting for restitution for that which had been stolen from their ancestors during the Holocaust. Germany had pledged as much when it agreed to adhere to the Washington Conference Principles of Nazi-Confiscated Art. Bavaria, for its part, had made its own commitments and was expected to make good on them. But that would require "greater dialogue and cooperation."
"The importance of these issues to Holocaust survivors and their families worldwide cannot be overstated," the letter reads.
In recent years, much has been said -- and promised -- regarding Nazi-looted art in Germany. This was particularly the case two years ago when the world learned of the secret collection held by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a former Nazi-era art dealer, who lived in Munich. The federal government and authorities in Bavaria consented to a "relentless investigation into Nazi art theft."
But in the US, home to the relatives of many Nazi victims, many no longer believe that Germany is being sincere, be it in terms of the Gurlitt estate or the many other cases that remain open. Of the hundreds of potentially looted artworks in Gurlitt's collection, only two have been returned to their rightful owners. When asked what the Americans think of Germany's handling of the looted art, Michael Hulton replies: "They find it disgusting." His story, or that of his great-uncle, is seen by many as symptomatic and was the likely catalyst for the Congressional letter to Seehofer.
Michael Hulton has long been trying to get restitution for the paintings he believes his great uncle Albert Flechtheim sold under duress.Foto: Roland Weihrauch/ dpa
Hulton, 69, is a British-born physician whose German parents went by the name Hulisch until their emigration. For years, Hulton has lived in San Francisco, while his stepmother lives in England. The two of them are the only descendants of Hulton's great-uncle, the Jewish collector and art dealer Alfred Flechtheim.
Like a Silent Witness
The great Flechtheim, a World War I officer, true Bohemian and a man with a passion for art. He was an authority of Modernity -- and was destroyed by the Nazis early on. The anti-Semitic insults had been growing in number since 1930, and in late 1932, Flechtheim's portrait was splashed across the front page of the Illustrierter Beobachter, a Nazi propaganda magazine. It carried the headline, "The Race Question Is the Key to World History." It was this picture that Hulton showed the politicians on Capitol Hill, and it remained on display during the discussion, watching over the participants like a silent witness.
In March 1933, after the Nazis ascended to power, the SA, Hitler's paramilitary hooligans, stormed an auction that had been organized by Flechtheim. The Nazi press called him the "art Jew" and accused him of defiling the "German people's soul" in an impudent and "Jewish, negro-like" manner. Flechtheim and his gallery were declared "finished." Even the word "extermination" was used.
In the US, there is an impression that Germany, as soon as the question of restitution is raised, tends to trivialize the first few years of National Socialism. To be sure, German institutions have in some cases admitted that Jewish art owners were exposed to duress. But they nevertheless insist that individual art purchases made early on must be viewed independently from the broader persecution that occurred during the Third Reich.
Is such an argument acceptable? It leaves out a lot -- such as the fact that Jews were not allowed to pursue certain professions, that people were forced into bankruptcy, that people were terrorized. It leaves out the fact that people feared for their families and that everyday sadism crept into their lives as early as 1933, 1934 or 1935. Flechtheim's case is even more complicated. It is claimed that he sold many of the artworks in question prior to 1933, making them exempt from any suspicions of undue expropriation.
A Source of Pride
Today, Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne museum owns nine paintings that Hulton suspects were given up by his great-uncle amid his persecution and flight that followed the Nazis' seizure of power. Six of these works are from the German avant-gardist Max Beckmann, one is from Paul Klee and two are from the Spaniard Juan Gris. The Beckmann collection especially, which includes a comely portrait of the painter's second wife, is a source of pride in Munich.
Hulton says he feels deceived by the museum. In fact, he says, they are now refusing to speak with him. Keeping lines of communication open, he complains, is a matter of fairness at the very least. When contacted, the museum merely said that it had nothing to add to the current "state of affairs."
Hulton's lawyers say even Flechtheim's persecution is being "dangerously relativized." In May 1933, Flechtheim, then in his mid-50s, fled first to Switzerland, then to England via France. Uprooted, he never was able to start anew. As he once wrote to the painter George Grosz, he felt as poor as a church mouse -- and as nervous as one too. A close friend reported early on that Flechtheim's wife Betti, who was also Jewish, was succumbing more and more every day to the despair of their situation. "She has uncertainty in front of her, and piles of rubble behind her." She stayed in Germany to be near her relatives, but she was probably also afraid of ending up completely dispossessed.
Flechtheim even dared to return on Germany on occasion. But every move he made compounded his feeling of helplessness.
In 1936 he divorced Betti, a move he naively thought would make her safer. He was sickly and suffered from both diabetes and an old injury he acquired in World War I. Then he fell, ended up with blood poisoning and had to have a leg amputated. In March 1937, at the age of 58, he died in London. The Nazis, who did not shy away from mocking the dead, published a caricature of him in an ad for their "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Betti Flechtheim committed suicide in 1941, shortly before she was scheduled for deportation.
Art historians were late to research the fate of Jewish collectors and gallery owners. Today, it's all anyone talks about. In 2013, the Pinakothek der Moderne and 14 other Munich museums coordinated parallel exhibitions about Flechtheim, making it seem as though they were serious about coming to terms with history. But even in the 2015 publication, "Alfred Flechtheim: Raubkunst und Restitution," ("Looted Art and Restitution"), there are indications that the urge (among the Bavarians as well) to address historical injustices is perhaps not deeply felt. There were vexing references to "clearly audible accusations" of an "aggressive commercialization" of potential claimants' interests, "however one may choose to weigh such arguments." The authors even said: "It's about money, often a lot of money." Essentially, those fighting for the rightful inheritance of their ancestors are portrayed as money-grubbing opportunists.
Focus on Bavaria
In recent years, Hulton has filed many requests for information at German museums. They have often been able to provide evidence that works in their possession are not looted art. Other times they returned the pieces in question to the descendants of their former owners, or they came to some other mutual agreement. For more than a year, a Juan Gris painting has been the subject of deliberation by the so-called Limbach Commission, which can be tapped in cases of questionable provenance. That course of action, however, only works if both parties -- claimants and current owners alike -- cooperate.
Hulton has identified potentially looted art in places other than Bavaria, including works from Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. But the members of Congress who are supporting the claims of Flechtheim's heirs are focusing exclusively on the southern German state. That is where they see the biggest need for dialogue -- and where they encounter the most recalcitrance.
The six Beckmann paintings were the subject of previous correspondence between Hulton's lawyers and their counterparts in Munich. The Bavarians asserted that Flechtheim sold the paintings in 1932 to the New York gallery owner J. B. Neumann. Only through him could they have found their way into the hands of the Munich dealer Günther Franke. Franke was Neumann's partner until 1932, after which he became self-employed. In 1974, he bequeathed his Beckmann works to the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, the state painting collections.
The Bavarians claim the pieces are not looted art and cite two letters written by Flechtheim in March and May 1932. The first did, in fact, make it seem as if the sale of the Beckmann paintings was watertight. But then, the other dealer said he only wanted to pay a fraction of the agreed sum. To this, Flechtheim answered in May: "Tant pis! Many thanks for your letter. If you were afraid that I would have dumped Beckmanns for 2,300 marks, then you were mistaken. However, I do consider it in Beckmann's best interest that the paintings remain over there and with you."
"Tant pis" means "a pity," an expression of disappointment. But everybody interprets the passage differently. Was Flechtheim's Beckmann collection already in New York, and if so, would that necessarily mean that the sale had gone through? Or does the paragraph rather suggest -- "tant pis!" -- that the sale had not been closed? Hulton believes Flechtheim had only shipped paintings to New York that he held on consignment -- works that he did not own himself.
More Complicated That It Seemed
In 2014, the Bavarian Culture Ministry insisted that its museums had "drawn the right conclusions." It didn't mention a letter from December 2013, in which a (now deceased) collector confirmed that he, soon after the end of World War II, had wanted to buy one of the Beckmann paintings in question, namely the portrait of the artist's wife. Hulton's German lawyer, Markus Stötzel, has a copy of the letter. But the dealer and eventual benefactor Günther Franke made it clear that the piece didn't belong to him and that the rightful owner was unreachable.
For another reason as well, it has long been clear that the matter was more complicated than it seemed. Stötzel, the lawyer, came across a photo of Beckmann's painting "The Lion Tamer," which used to belong to Flechtheim, in an auction catalogue in 2011. The auctioneer helped establish contact to the consignor, a largely unknown man named Cornelius Gurlitt. He believed that his father had bought the painting from Flechtheim in 1934. Hultons' lawyers assume the senior Gurlitt acquired it from Flechtheim's gallery in Berlin, which at the time was being liquidated by an auditor. If that is true, it would mean that Flechtheim didn't sell his entire Beckmann collection in 1932.
An expert task force was assembled in 2013 by the German federal and Bavarian state governments to investigate Gurlitt's collection. Stötzel received a tip from one of the researchers that the name Flechtheim had popped up numerous times in the old documents. A majority of the documents were only provided to the task force with great delay because many had been in the possession of a filmmaker -- a rather odd detail that makes the Americans' skepticism more understandable. Stötzel has still not been granted access to the documents to this day.
Currently, nothing is being ruled out, not even a complaint filed by Stötzel against the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in the case of the "Welfenschatz," or "Guelph Treasure." Mel Urbach, Hulton's New York attorney, says that if the situation isn't resolved, it means the Nazis got their way after all.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania and one of the signatories of the letter, says the restitution of looted art is "the just and right thing to do."
Shortly before his death in 1937, Flechtheim left one of the paintings he took into exile with him to the government in Paris. He had wanted to become a French citizen. Today, the cubist work "Wedding" by Fernand Léger belongs to the Centre Pompidou. In the end, these seemingly complicated stories are, in fact, quite simple. Many museums owe their best artworks to the terror of the Nazis.
Bavaria's State Chancellery confirmed it had received the Americans' letter.