Bavaria’s regional parliament eased the return of looted art to the heirs of victims of the Nazis by eliminating a rule requiring the state government to be compensated for restitutions.
The restriction was lifted after the heirs of Valerie Heissfeld, a Jewish widow living in Vienna in 1938, laid claim to a watercolor in Munich’s Staatliche Graphische Sammlung. The painting, by Rudolf von Alt, was looted by the Nazis after Heissfeld fled Vienna. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s private secretary, acquired it and kept it in Obersalzberg.
The painting was among the belongings of Nazi officials and institutions transferred to Bavaria after the war. Though it accepted the Heissfeld claim as valid, the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung blocked the painting’s return because it could not refund its value to the state. A constitutional requirement that the state must be compensated for any lost assets was amended in the budget law, passed late yesterday.
“This is a positive and constructive step,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which tracked down the watercolor and filed the claim on behalf of the heirs. “We hope that where other claims are successful, returns can now happen more quickly.”
Heissfeld fled Nazi-annexed Austria for Brno in 1939. After the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where she was murdered in 1942. Her daughter Lotte managed to escape Czechoslovakia two weeks before the invasion.
Heissfeld had tried to take the painting, called “Old North Station, Vienna,” when she fled Austria but was prevented from doing so under an export ban. It was auctioned after she fled, along with three other von Alt watercolors belonging to Heissfeld. Bormann acquired it from a dealer in Munich.
During World War II, it was hidden in an Austrian salt mine for safekeeping and then returned to Bavaria after the war. It is currently valued at 20,000 euros ($28,500).
The state of Bavaria inherited the property of Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Bormann, Rudolf Hess and others, as well as artworks from Nazi Party offices. Some 800 works were transferred to the Bavarian State Painting Collections, according to Andrea Bambi, the Chief Curator for Art Provenance Research.
Bambi is researching the ownership history of about 4,400 paintings and 700 sculptures belonging to Bavaria. She estimates the number of looted artworks in the collection that need to be restituted to heirs will “be a two-digit figure at most.”
The state collection has listed works it suspects may have been looted on the lost art database www.lostart.de. It has returned eight works in the past 10 years, and was in each case obliged to compensate the Bavarian state for the loss.
“The change to the law will make it easier for our museums to carry out speedy restitutions of Nazi-looted art and we welcome it,” said Katja Funken, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian Ministry of Science, Research and Art.
Webber called on Bavaria to publish a list of all the works inherited from Nazi officials and institutions that are in public collections to help other heirs seeking looted art.
“We don’t know what these works of art are,” she said. “This should all be online and transparent. We know of a number of paintings which were looted and in Bavarian public collections. This was not the only one.”
The Commission for Looted Art in Europe also secured the return of a painting from the Dresden State Art Collections this week. On April 6, it announced the restitution of the 1816 “Portrait of a Young Woman With a Drawing Instrument” by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein to the heirs of three Viennese sisters, two of whom were murdered in Treblinka in 1942.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)