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Culture

History Overtakes Art in Battle to Stage Exhibition

German art collector Friedrich Christian Flick, grandson of a Nazi-era arms supplier, is facing resistance to a planned exhibition of his artworks in Berlin. Jewish leaders say the collection was built on "blood money."

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No stranger to controversy.

Fredrich Christian Flick must be bracing himself for controversy every time he plans a public viewing of his vast and impressive art collection.

Last year, the city of Zurich turned down the 57-year-old's offer of gifting the Swiss city the collection complete with a Rem Koolhaas-built museum to house it, amid protests by Jewish groups and cultural organizations.

Recently, Munich and Dresden also turned down Flick's plans to exhibit his collection.

This week, the German capital looks set to follow suit, judging by the raging debate surrounding the German art patron's plans to exhibit his works there in September in a warehouse near the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art. Flick is pumping €7.5 million ($9.1 million) for the renovation of the warehouse.

Collection tainted by "blood money"

In a letter published on Tuesday, Salomon Korn, the vice president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, urged Flick to drop plans for the exhibition, saying "blood money" resulting from the exploitation of forced laborers and the crimes of Friedrich Flick, Christian Flick's grandfather, tainted the art collection.

Korn called Flick's move to house his works in Berlin a "moral whitewash of blood money."

In an open letter to Flick published in a German daily, Michael Fürst, another member of the Central Council of Jews, said the exhibition equated an "unbearable provocation for all those who had to suffer hunger, humiliation and torture as forced laborers and concentration camp inmates in your grandfather's factories."

Fürst has also slammed Berlin authorities for organizing the exhibition and said he was shocked "by the lack of sensitivity among Berlin's cultural officials, who had apparently been blinded and made forgetful by the glamour of big money and the gigantic range of the collection."

Born into a family with Nazi links

The accusations aimed at Flick aren't exactly new.

Friedrich Flick vor dem Kriegsverbrechertribunal in Nürnberg

Trial decision against Friedrich Flick at Nuremberg on Dec. 22, 1947.

As the grandson of Friedrich Flick (photo) (1883-1972), a major arms manufacturer during the Nazi-era who was found guilty of using forced labor among other offenses in 1947, the art collector has for years struggled with the stigma associated with his family name.

The Nazi associations have also stained his vast art collection, which comprises some 2,500 works of modern art ranging from Duchamp and Mondrian to more contemporary pieces by Jason Rohoades and Paul McCarthy. Critics say Flick was able to finance the expensive collection with the massive wealth left to him by his grandfather.

Flick, himself a millionaire, has also come under fire for failing to pay into a reparation fund set up by German industry to compensate those forced into labor camps by the Nazis.

Collection not meant to "relativize" crimes

For his part, Flick has often defended himself by saying that he wasn't to blame for his grandfather's deeds.

In an open letter this week, he admitted that "the family name Flick comes with a special responsibility," but insisted that the display of his collection is not intended to "relativize or make people forget" the crimes of his grandfather.

He has also pointed towards his efforts to enrich Berlin's art landscape by lending the city thousands of modern masterpieces through his planned exhibition and his establishment of the Foundation against Racism, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Potsdam in 2001 as proof of his commitment towards "reconciliation."

"Stigmatizing art"

Support for Flick has come from Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of Berlin's Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, the administrative body of the Berlin state museums, who is organizing the exhibition.

"It's no solution to stigmatize art and paint the grandchildren with the same brush," Lehmann said. "The Flick collection is based on a very personal passion of the collector. It's a huge asset for Berlin's museum landscape," he added.

German media this week appeared to take a similar view.

An editorial in the respected weekly Die Zeit said, "It's abstruse to make links between the Nazi era and a collection of contemporary -- and in no way Aryanized -- art."

The exhibition, "The Flick Collection" is tentatively scheduled to open in September, 2004 in Berlin

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