Alarm in Germany over Nazi art restitution

20th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

By Esteban Engel, Berlin (dpa) - German museums are alarmed they could lose some of their most important paintings because of a contentious law governing artworks sold under duress or confiscated from Jews by the Nazis.

By Esteban Engel

Berlin (dpa) - German museums are alarmed they could lose some of their most important paintings because of a contentious law governing artworks sold under duress or confiscated from Jews by the Nazis.

Culture Minister Bernd Neumann has called a crisis meeting of the country's museum and art gallery directors on Monday to discuss the future of tens of millions of euros worth of art collections.

The meeting follows the high-profile 38-million-dollar sale in New York this month of a key work of German expressionism, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Berlin Street Scene.

The 1913 painting was on display in Berlin's Bruecke Museum until August 1 after which it was returned to Anita Halpin, the granddaughter of its former owner, Jewish art collector Alfred Hess.

Halpin put it up for auction at Christie's where it was purchased by Ron Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, who plans to display it at New York's Neue Galerie.

The painting was handed over to Halpin by the Berlin senate under the so-called "restitution" law, which some gallery directors and art critics fear could lead to an exodus of valuable paintings and sculptures from Germany.

Some 10 per cent of the artworks that came under the hammer at the New York sale by Christie's were returned to the heirs of their former owners by German galleries.

Experts estimate that German museums possess around 100 works by German Expressionists that are the subject of restitution claims, among them paintings by Kirchner and Franz Marc, a founder of the Blue Rider group.

Dresden Museum's art director Martin Roth says lawyers, art collectors and private gallery owners are sifting through museums in eastern Germany looking for works that might be in dispute.

Researcher Venessa Voigt, who advises museums on restitution matters, says the galleries themselves should do more to look into the origins of how they acquired their disputed works.

In the case of the Kirchner painting, it was sold by Alfred Hess' widow Thekla to collector Carl Hagemann for 3,000 Reichsmarks, the currency under the Nazis.

This would have been considered a fair price at the time. But it is unclear whether she actually received payment and whether the painting was sold under duress or in an emergency because the family's shoe business was losing money.

Hagemann later made a gift of the painting to the director of the Staedel museum in Frankfurt. The widow of the director sold the painting to the Bruecke Museum in 1989.

The chairman of the Bruecke Museum, Lutz von Pufendorf, called the return of Berlin Street Scene, "illegal, hasty and needless." He accused the Berlin senate of making "an unjustified gift" to Halpin, chairwoman of the British Communist Party.

Christoph Stoelzl, a former culture senator in Berlin and now general manager of the Villa Grisebach auction house, said there was no need to return the painting because the ownership issue had nothing to do with Nazi persecution.

The Berlin senate said it was acting in accordance with the restitution law, which is based on an agreement signed by Germany and 43 other states in 1998. Monday's crisis meeting will discuss how the law is being handled.

November 2006

Copyright DPA with Expatica 2006

Subject: German news

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