Art looted by the Nazis and Germany's resistance to return
Pablo Picasso. That name alone is usually enough to attract attention in the art world. So it's no surprise that a Picasso has now become synonymous with dealing with art looted by the German Nazis. The painting in question is "Madame Soler" from 1903, part of the artist's Blue Period, exhibited at the "Pinakothek der Moderne" in Munich.
For the Bavarian State Painting Collections – the state authority that oversees the Munich Museum's collection – it must remain here. According to them, painting is not stolen art.
But historian Julius H. Schoeps claims to be the heir to the rightful owner of the artwork. He said the painting clearly belonged to his uncle, the German-Jewish banker and art collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Schoeps, professor emeritus of modern history at the University of Potsdam, spent years doing his research in archives around the world and wrote a book about the case, "Who Owns Picasso's 'Madame Soler'?"
For him it is clear: The fact that the painting was offered for sale in 1935 was the result of the disenfranchisement and persecution of the Jews after Hitler came to power in 1933. "The fact that Bavaria claims that there was no persecution at all until 1935 is completely ahistorical", he declared indignantly.
It's a dispute that seems preordained for the Advisory Commission on Nazi Looted Property, established 20 years ago to make recommendations in complicated cases of restitution disputes. The problem? The commission can start its work only if both parties agree to it.
"In the case of 'Madame Soler', the families have been fighting for almost 10 years for the case to be referred to the Commission", Hans-Jürgen Papier, the president of the Commission, pointed out critically. "But the Free State of Bavaria categorically refuses. There is nothing we can do."
As the Commission marked its 20th anniversary in September 2023, Papier called for fundamental reforms, aimed at allowing victims of Nazi persecution to unilaterally call on the Commission to make recommendations - without waiting for museums to give their consent. And the Commission's recommendations should be binding.
He says they are currently stuck in a legal vacuum, adding that for now, when museums return paintings, these actions are on a "voluntary basis, and at best, morally motivated." But, he added, "Victims have no legal rights."
Germany signed the Washington Principles on December 3, 1998, in which 43 states undertook to identify "works of art seized as a result of Nazi persecution" and to find "just solutions" with their owners or heirs. Germany is not in line with all of these, according to Schoeps.
"Germany is the country of authors. And in this country in particular, heirs often despair of how they are being treated," he said. If something is not finally done, Germany's reputation will be damaged internationally, he added.
He cited the fact that Von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's heirs have reached museums outside of Germany on several occasions, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim in New York.
The Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth, who came to the Jewish Museum in Berlin for the Commission ceremony, has promised that there will be reforms.
It has said that consultations with the federal states – whose approval is needed in this case in Germany's federal system – would be held before the end of October 2023. A unilateral appeal to the commission would also be possible.
For Papier, that doesn't go far enough. He has called for restitution legislation. Otherwise, the unilateral appeal would not be applicable at all, thinks Papier, who was the former president of the Federal Constitutional Court.
The Advisory Commission on Nazi Looted Property has made 23 recommendations in its 20 years of existence. "This is too little," he insisted.
The commission was successful, for example, in settling a dispute over two paintings by the Italian old master Bernardo Bellotto, known as Canaletto.
The dispute dragged on for 15 years. The paintings once belonged to Jewish department store magnate and important art patron Max Emden.
During the Nazi era he had to sell them to Adolf Hitler's private collection for less than their value, the Emden family's lawyers argued.
After the war, American soldiers found the paintings, which later ended up in the art warehouse of the Federal Ministry of Finance. For a while they were hung in the official residence of the German president and later in the Military Historical Museum in Dresden.
There they were convinced that Emden had been safely in Switzerland at the time of the sale. It was up to the heirs to prove that Emden had sold the Canalettos "from a loss of assets due to persecution".
Maeva Emden, Emden's great-granddaughter who grew up in Chile, recalls the many bureaucratic hurdles her family had to overcome. The commission ultimately recommended the return of two of Canaletto's works.
In 2020 they were auctioned at Sotheby's. The work "View of the Zwinger Graben in Dresden" was sold for only 6 million euros.
"The necessary legal support from lawyers over the years made it necessary to sell the photographs", says Maeva Emden. She would have preferred to have made Canaletto available to the Hamburg Gallery, her great-grandfather's birthplace.
Above all, she says she wants recognition of "what Max Emden has done for Hamburg and Germany. There are so many Jewish families whose memory has been extinguished because they were killed."
In 2017, the watercolor "Swamp Landscape with Red Windmill" by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff was returned to the Reynolds family on the recommendation of the commission.
It belonged to the Jewish entrepreneur and art collector Max Rüdenberg. 87-year-old Vernon Reynolds is Rüdenberg's nephew.
"What are the paintings?" he asked. He would rather talk about the loss of people than the return of works of art. "Works of art can be returned, people cannot", he told DW. "I lost my father and my grandparents on both sides. Uncles, aunts - all lost forever."
Vernon Reynolds, born in Berlin in 1935, survived with his mother - thanks in part to his grandfather's art collection. Rüdenberg and his wife Greta sold everything they could to get the family out of the country.
Vernon's brother and sister went to England on one of the buses carrying the children, which evacuated the children from Nazi-controlled territory. His mother also managed to escape with Vernon, who was 3 years old at the time. His grandparents Max and Greta Rüdenberg, however, remained in Germany and were killed in Theresienstadt. Vernon Reynolds' father died in Auschwitz.
(Taken from DW)
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