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Nazi-Seized Klee Goes to Court After Munich Rejects Talks

Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials visit the ``Degenerate Art
Adolf Hitler and other Nazi officials visit the ``Degenerate Art" exhibition in Berlin, Germany, on July 16, 1937. Source: Free University via Bloomberg

March 27 (Bloomberg) -- The heirs of a German art historian who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927 filed a legal claim against the city of Munich for a Paul Klee painting that they say was stolen from their grandmother by the Nazis.

The painting, “Sumpflegende” (Swamp Legend), is housed in Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum. Three grandchildren of Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers filed suit for its return at the Bavarian regional court after offers to negotiate were rebuffed. The suit, dated March 23, puts the painting’s value at 2 million euros ($2.7 million.)

Lissitzky-Kueppers inherited “Sumpflegende” in 1922 and loaned it to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum in 1926, before she left Germany. The painting was seized from the museum in 1937 under the orders of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich.

Munich has “rejected returning the Klee painting with constantly changing reasons since 1992,” Christoph von Berg of Von Berg Bandekow Zorn, the Leipzig law firm representing the heirs, said in a statement sent to Bloomberg News by e-mail. “All attempts by the heirs to reach an agreement have been brusquely brushed aside.”

The Nazis seized thousands of modern works, seeking to purge German museums of art they saw as contrary to Aryan ideals. An online database compiled by Berlin’s Free University plans to document as many as 21,000 confiscated “degenerate” works by artists including Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Klee.

In the degenerate art show, “Sumpflegende” was mocked as the “confusion” and “disorder” of a “mentally ill person.”

Rejecting Panel

In September 2010, Munich Mayor Christian Ude rejected an approach from a government commission headed by former Constitutional Court judge Jutta Limbach, offering to mediate in the dispute with the Lissitzky-Kueppers heirs.

The panel was set up by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann in 2003 to make recommendations on disputed artworks lost by their owners in the Nazi era and now in public collections. The panel can only propose solutions if both sides of a dispute allow.

The basis for the panel’s recommendations is an international accord known as the Washington Principles, endorsed by 44 countries in 1998. Under those non-binding principles, countries pledged to restitute or reach a settlement with the heirs on Nazi-looted art in public collections.

Munich Welcomes Suit

Ude has argued that those principles don’t apply to so-called “degenerate art” seized from museums -- only to works seized from private collections.

“The city of Munich welcomes the fact that after years of fighting an extra-judicial campaign there will now be legal clarification on the restitution claim by Lissitzky-Kueppers’ grandchildren,” Ude said today in a statement sent by e-mail. “The city of Munich can in no way be connected to the National Socialist seizure of ‘Sumpflegende’ -- it has also not profited in any way from the Nazi confiscation operation.”

The heirs say that under civil law, Lissitzky-Kueppers never lost title to the painting. They also argue that under the terms of the Washington Principles and an agreement between German public authorities, the city of Munich is not entitled to employ technical defenses like statutes of limitations.

Poster Ruling

The heirs said in the statement that their view of the legal position was vindicated in a recent ruling by the Bundesgerichtshof, the top court for civil matters in Germany. On March 16, the court ordered Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum to return a collection of posters looted by the Gestapo to the son of a Jewish dentist who fled Nazi Germany.

An earlier lawsuit demanding restitution of “Sumpflegende” by Lissitzky-Kueppers’ son was thrown out by the Bavarian regional court in 1993, before the Washington Principles were formulated, on the basis that statutes had expired.

Lissitzky-Kueppers loaned “Sumpflegende” and 15 other works to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum in 1926, shortly before she left Germany. She emigrated to Moscow to join the Russian artist El Lissitzky, whom she married, according to the book “Lost Lives, Lost Art” by Melissa Mueller and Monika Tatzkow.

Banished to Siberia by Stalin as a German living in the Soviet Union during the war, she failed to recover her paintings. She died in penury in Novosibirsk in 1978.

The Nazis sold “Sumpflegende” in 1941. Several changes of ownership later, the picture was acquired by Munich and the Gabriele Muenter Foundation in 1982.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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