New project tells story of Jewish art collectors


Today, the subject of the restitution of works of art is the subject of conferences and debates – whether Bronzes from Benin in Berlin or art looted by the Nazis. The 2012 Gurlitt case, in which 1,500 works of art were found on properties belonging to the son of a Nazi art dealer, made it clear that the time had finally come for the restitution debate. Yet little has been said about the people behind the paintings, drawings and sketches.

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A new joint project by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Bavarian State Painting Collections aims to fill this gap and tell the human stories behind some cases of art restitution. “We have been doing provenance research for 20 years, helping with restitutions or initiating them,” Bernhard Maaz, managing director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, told DW. “But the great emotional impact of these processes is not often conveyed,” he said.

Archives of Forgotten Fates

Thirty of these stories about works of art and their Jewish owners will be told in films over the three-year project. They will trace the journey of the work of art through the hands of collaborators and highlight the value it has for its rightful owners and descendants. Ideally, all stories told will end with a restitution.

The stories of Jewish art collectors are little known, although the paintings associated with them may be famous. These stolen works include the gilded portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt, “Berlin Street Scene” by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or “The Eye of the Law (Justitia)” by Carl Spitzweg. The stories behind the works of art tell of persecution, expropriation and murder.

The business of Austrian-Czech sugar maker and art lover Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was “Aryanized”, forcing him into exile in Switzerland in 1939. Alone and impoverished, he died shortly after the end of the war. The Hess family owned a shoe factory in the eastern city of Erfurt and had what was probably the best collection of German Expressionist art. Thekla Hess and her son Alfred survived the war in exile in London and much of their collection was sold. Thekla’s two sisters-in-law and her cousin Olga were murdered by the Nazis in Theresienstadt.

A matter of justice

Painter Carl Spitzweg’s 1857 painting “The Eye of the Law (Justitia)” was part of the small collection of Jewish businessman and art collector Leo Bendel, born in Poland, living in Berlin but s fleeing to Vienna with his wife in 1937. In the same year he was forced to sell two Spitzweg paintings at rock bottom prices.

“Justitia” was acquired by a buyer for a museum dedicated to Hitler. During the sale, Bendel was not noted as being of “non-Aryan descent”, and for this reason the painting was classified as “flawless” and was therefore handed over to the office of the German President in 1961. The painting hung in the Villa Hammerschmidt town of Bonn until 2007. It was later returned based on research by Bendel’s heirs.

Leo Bendel was arrested by the Gestapo in 1939 as a Polish Jew, mistreated and eventually deported to Buchenwald concentration camp. He was there with a group of people huddled together in a fenced off part of the concentration camp above the Jewish block next to the area where the roll call took place. It became the site of the first intentional massacre of Jews and Poles at the Buchenwald concentration camp. The name of Leo Bendel was also found among the dead: He died on March 30, 1940 of “senile debility” as it was written.

Washington Declaration and Provenance Research

The Washington Principles on Nazi Looted Art, recognized in a joint statement by Germany and the United States in 1998, provided the framework within which Nazi looted art has been dealt with ever since. In these, Germany pledged to examine its works of art and identify looted art or contribute to the investigation. It was more than 50 years after the end of the Second World War and it was high time to make amends for the art looted by the Nazis.

But the objects do not tell their story by themselves. The art world has scrutinized its holdings since then – albeit with varying levels of commitment – ​​if any. Provenance research, which is historical research into how objects were obtained, is complex. “We are talking about around 600,000 works of art in total, which is huge,” says Bernhard Maaz. Provenance research often takes time. “Because each case is an individual case,” says Maaz. “This is going to keep us busy for decades.”

The Bavarian State Painting Collections have been able to return 25 works from 17 collections since 1998. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has handled more than 50 return requests since 1999, returning more than 350 works of art and approximately 2,000 books to the rightful owners. These include a drawing by Vincent van Gogh, works by Edvard Munch and “Der Watzmann” by Caspar David Friedrich. Provenance research has been professionally undertaken in Germany since 1998 – but many have questioned whether this is enough.

More remembrance culture

The significance of Jewish patrons was immense, and not just for the German art world. Many of the greatest art treasures were brought by Jewish collectors. The centerpiece of the Neues Museum in Berlin, the bust of Nefertiti, is an example of this.

Its excavation was financed by James Simon, who was Jewish, and then donated to the Egyptian Museum in 1920. The memory of James Simon has found a suitable place in the Neues Museum, but other places of memory are still “under construction”. such as Berlin’s Johanna and Eduard Arnhold Platz, dedicated to prominent Jewish patrons and those associated with them in Berlin whose legacies were destroyed by the Nazis.

The central idea of ​​the restitution policy is to repair the injustices committed, if not by the restitution of property, at least by fully recognizing it.

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