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Jewish Art Dealer’s Heir Settles Nazi-Era Claim With Bonn Museum

A painting by Paul Adolf Seehaus titled
A painting by Paul Adolf Seehaus titled "Lighthouse With Rotating Beam," dating from 1913. The Kunstmuseum Bonn reached a settlement with the heir of its former owner, the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. Source: Kunstmuse Bonn via Bloomberg

April 12 (Bloomberg) -- A Bonn museum settled a claim for a painting by Paul Adolf Seehaus with the heir of Alfred Flechtheim, one of Germany’s most prominent modern-art dealers until he fled Berlin and the Nazis in 1933.

The Kunstmuseum in Bonn said in a statement today it will pay half the estimated market value to keep the painting, “Lighthouse With Rotating Beam,” which it described as “an important work of Rhineland expressionism.” The museum didn’t cite a figure for the value of the work.

Flechtheim’s great-nephew Mike Hulton, a doctor based in California, has lodged claims with several museums for paintings from the dealer’s private collection, including works by Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee. Bonn’s Kunstmuseum is the first in Germany to reach an agreement with Hulton.

“Despite intensive research, it is no longer possible to establish with certainty when and under what circumstances the painting was taken from Flechtheim,” the museum said in a statement sent by e-mail. “Even so, regardless of the open questions, the Kunstmuseum recognizes the persecution Flechtheim suffered. Flechtheim was a victim of the Nazi terror regime.”

As a Jew who sold art that the Nazis condemned as “degenerate,” Flechtheim was among the first targets of persecution, suffering harassment in the Nazi press even before Hitler took power in 1933. When Flechtheim fled, Alex Voemel, the business manager of his Dusseldorf branch and a member of the Nazi party, took over the gallery and its contents.

Signal to Others

“We are talking to a lot of institutions and I expect that this settlement will send signals to others,” Markus Stoetzel, Hulton’s lawyer, said in a phone interview from Marburg.

“In some cases we have a different view from the museums, in others there is a need for more research, in still others, the museums are dragging the process out,” he said.

Under international guidelines known as the Washington Principles, Germany is committed to returning art in public collections that was looted by the Nazis. In the case of Flechtheim, no inventory of his private collection or the stock of his gallery has survived and in many cases, the exact circumstance of loss is not known.

“The Flechtheim case is very complex and the provenance of each artwork has to be investigated individually,” Stoetzel said. He said he is in talks with museums in Dusseldorf, Berlin, Munich and Cologne about other works from the collection.

Hulton plans to use the settlement money to set up a foundation to investigate the German prewar art market, Stoetzel said.

Grain Merchants

The Seehaus painting was in Flechtheim’s private collection until at least 1932, when he loaned it for an exhibition in Berlin, the Kunstmuseum said in the statement. After Flechtheim’s flight from Germany, the painting was probably among those taken by Voemel, the museum said. The Kunstmuseum acquired it at a Stuttgart auction in 1949.

Flechtheim was born in 1878 into a wealthy family of grain merchants in the city of Muenster, according to Ottfried Dascher’s biography, “Es ist was Wahnsinniges mit der Kunst” (There’s Something Crazy About Art).

He was made a shareholder in the family firm in 1902 yet showed little interest in or talent for the grain business. He left to become a full-time art dealer in 1912.

His art collection began in the early years of the 20th century, when regular trips to Paris brought him into contact with the Cubists. He was among the first German collectors to own works by Picasso and he bought art by Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Heinrich Campendonk, Wilhelm Lehmbruck and August Macke. He also owned works by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne.

He died in London in 1937.

Today’s Muse highlights: Jason Harper on Jeep, Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Farah Nayeri’s London weekend.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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