Jewish Artist’s Heirs Pressure Museums on Nazi-Era Losses
The great-granddaughters of the German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann are growing impatient with Berlin museum authorities about two drawings from his collection they say were lost as a result of Nazi persecution.
The drawings by Adolph Menzel in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin are among thousands of works that Liebermann’s heirs are trying to recover. Liebermann was not only one of the most famous German Impressionists; he was also a great collector. Works by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir adorned his imposing home next to the Brandenburg Gate.
Forced to resign as honorary president of the Prussian Academy of Arts after the Nazis took power, Liebermann died isolated and embittered in 1935, leaving his estate to his widow. She sold some artworks to pay the rent and buy food and medicine before committing suicide in 1943.
“For the heirs, it’s difficult to understand why public institutions are so hesitant,” said Georg Castell of Heinichen Laudien von Nottbeck Rechtsanwaelte in Berlin, the lawyer representing the great-granddaughters. “Without cooperation from the museums, we can’t get very far.”
Impoverished by the Nazis’ punitive financial demands, Martha Liebermann took poison at the age of 85 to escape deportation to a concentration camp. The art that remained in her apartment after her death was seized by the Gestapo.
The Liebermanns’ daughter, Kaethe Riezler, escaped to the U.S. Her granddaughters do not wish to be identified by name, Castell said.
Under postwar laws crafted by the western allies and later West German laws, any art sales by Jews after 1935 are presumed to have been under duress and therefore invalid. The 1998 Washington principles, endorsed by 44 nations, require public museums to find “just and fair solutions” with the original owners of art stolen by the Nazis.
The two Menzel drawings are known to have been in Martha’s possession until 1938, which makes it likely she swapped them for food or medicine at a time when Jews were frequently denied access to doctors and basic provisions, said Monika Tatzkow, who is researching Liebermann’s collection on behalf of the artist’s great-granddaughters. Tatzkow is collaborating with the Max Liebermann Gesellschaft on a book about the collection to be published next year.
Menzel was one of the most prominent artists of 19th- century Berlin and Liebermann owned more than 60 of his works.
One of the sketches in the Kupferstichkabinett is for his important historical painting “Floetenkonzert” (Flute Concert) showing Frederick the Great playing to an audience at Sanssouci Palace; the other, “Koenigshuette,” is a mining scene.
“The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has been brooding over these drawings for more than three years,” Tatzkow said. “It is completely incomprehensible. We know they were lost due to Nazi persecution.”
Stefanie Heinlein, a spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organization that runs Berlin’s museums including the Kupferstichkabinett, declined to comment on “ongoing procedures.”
The foundation has, however, this year returned four Menzel drawings to the Liebermann heirs, who will auction them at Berlin’s Villa Grisebach on Nov. 28. They were known to have been in Martha Liebermann’s possession until 1937.
Castell said he’s sure more works belonging to the family are still in Berlin’s public collections.
“All of it is still somewhere,” Castell said by phone. “What we want is for the museums to take an appropriate stance toward this part of the Liebermanns’ history. Everyone loves Liebermann -- there are exhibitions, his bon mots are quoted -- but the second part of the story is suppressed.”
The son of a wealthy textiles manufacturer, Liebermann once wrote to a fellow collector that “you can have too many Manets, but never enough.” He also acquired graphics by Rembrandt and works by 19th-century German artists such as Menzel and Carl Blechen. Some of his collection was shipped abroad in the early 1930s and saved. Most was dispersed and lost.
Two more restituted artworks from the collection will also be auctioned at Villa Grisebach in November -- a Menzel portrait drawing and an oil painting by Blechen, “Hoehenzug mit blauen Schatten” (Mountain Range With Blue Shadows), with a high estimate of 30,000 euros ($48,000).
These works were seized by the Nazis and intended for the “Fuehrermuseum” that Adolf Hitler planned to build in Linz. They were handed to the German government by the Allies after World War II on the understanding that they would be returned to the original owner.
While Berlin has at least handed back some works, other museums are declining to cooperate. A painting by Manet, “Portrait of Monsieur Arnaud on Horseback,” was in the Liebermann collection until at least 1936, according to Tatzkow.
It is now in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan, which has failed to respond to requests for provenance information, she said. Sara Minotti, a spokeswoman for the museum, said by e- mail that curator Paola Zatti could only confirm it received the painting as a donation from Carlo Grassi in the mid-1950s.
“I am sorry but we are not able to give you any further details on the provenance,” Minotti wrote.
The heirs have also tried to recover the last portrait of Martha Liebermann by her husband from the Museum Georg Schaefer in Schweinfurt. The oil, “Martha Liebermann in an Armchair,” was on a Gestapo list of more than 50 objects seized from her apartment after her suicide.
Tatzkow said the museum made a “derisory” compensation offer that the heirs rejected. In a statement sent by fax to Bloomberg News, the museum said its board recognized no legal obligation to return the painting and said it had received no response to its compensation offer from the heirs’ lawyer.
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