Hitler’s Specter Still Haunts German Art Reclamation Struggles

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Back in July, Peculiar Progressive reported on the struggle of museums-particularly in the U.S.-to deal with Nazi-era art, and whether heirs have the legal right to the art. In “Battling Hitler’s Ghost in Claiming Nazi-Era Art,” we interviewed David Rowland, an attorney who had provided an overview of art reclamation problems in a 2009 paper given to a New York Federal Bar Council conference, with special emphasis on art now in the United States. You can see our report here.

242hlb20 HitlerWe also wrote of Michael Hulton and his late grand-uncle Alfred Flechtheim, a legendary Berlin gallery owner who lost dozens of master paintings to the Nazis before World War II. The successful art dealer had to leave Germany in 1933, victim of Adolph Hitler’s Jewish purge. He also had to sell some of those paintings-including works by Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee-in order to survive in America.

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Before a German court, Hulton has been attempting to win back some of Flechtheim’s former art possessions. This past week, he urged the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to relinquish paintings by Klee and Juan Gris. According to Bloomberg news:

…Hulton says there is enough evidence that Klee’s “Feather Plant,” a 1919 oil painting, and Gris’s “Still Life (Violin and Inkwell)” from 1913 were part of Flechtheim’s private collection and sold under duress. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen argues there’s room for doubt and more research is needed. The two paintings are worth several million euros each, said Markus Stoetzel, Hulton’s lawyer.

“There is no doubt that Uncle Alfred sold the painting by Juan Gris probably for next to nothing when he was on the run” from the Nazis, Hulton wrote in response to e-mailed questions. “The same applies to the painting by Paul Klee. We are asking for late justice. My aged stepmother Penny and I are very disappointed and somewhat puzzled — we hope this emotionally stressful and difficult situation will come to an end soon.”

At this writing, the legal struggle continues. You can see the whole Bloomberg report by Catherine Hickley here.

Also this week, Der Spiegel Online carried an extensive article on the Nazi-era art struggle called “Hitler’s Wristwatch: A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums.” The piece by Steffen Winter looks at the mammoth amounts of valuable art, jewelry and other collectibles prior to and during World War II. He argues that German museums and governments have “failed to properly address” the contentious issue:

Almost seven decades later, the German state continues to hold paintings, rugs, furniture, graphics, sculptures, silver vessels, tapestries, books and precious stones appropriated by the Nazi clique. The German government owns about 20,000 items, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, books and coins. According to a 2004 estimate, the 2,300 paintings alone have an insurance value of €60 million ($81 million). Hundreds more are in the storage rooms of museums in the country.

No one likes to talk about this enormous cache of Nazi treasure, partly because of a feeling of guilt for possessing assets that are often of unclear provenance: Art objects acquired from Jewish collections that were sold off in a panic after 1933, or that were simply taken from their rightful owners before they disappeared into concentration camps.

Not all of this art is being kept from the public. A number of works are distributed throughout Germany in public museums, private collections, at the office of the German president, at the Chancellery in Berlin, in government guesthouses and in German embassies around the globe.

You can read Winter’s entire detailed article here.