Famous violin sparks moral debate | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 22.02.2014
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Famous violin sparks moral debate

A valuable musical instrument will be offered to young musicians in Nuremberg as a "violin of reconciliation." But its origin remains murky. Was a Jewish owner forced to sell the instrument to the Nazis?

"With the first stroke of the bow you can actually feel that there's a quality and sweetness to the sound," said Daniel Gaede. The Nuremberg University of Music professor and former concertmaster in the Vienna Philharmonic ecstatically cradles the violin he's just played. At first glance, the unassuming instrument is worn, indicating that it's certainly been well played.

Professor Daniel Gaede with the Guaneri violin Photo: Thomas Senne

Gaede plays the Guaneri violin

But the wear and tear is no surprise, because the violin comes from a famous Italian violin-making family from Cremona. The instrument is mentioned alongside peers Amati and Stradivari, representing the highest quality in craftsmanship.

Violin of reconciliation

As a production note reveals, Guiseppe Guarneri, a pupil of Amati's, allegedly crafted the violin in 1706. Today, it's stored in a vault and could probably sound a bit better. But restoring the piece to its proper state would cost at least 40,000 to 60,000 euros ($55,000-83,000). Throughout the years the device has warped and even has a few tears.

After a proper restoration, however, experts estimate that the violin could be worth a good half million euros. If things play out in favor of the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, the instrument could be lent to outstanding young talent from Nuremberg as a "Violin of Reconciliation."

But at the moment the violin's murky history is sparking heated discussion in the city once known for its Nazi rallies. The reason? The whereabouts of the precious piece during Nazi times is still largely unexplained.

Unclear origins

In 1974, Sophie Hagemann, a long-time violin instructor at the Nuremberg Meistersinger Conservatory (now the Nuremberg University of Music), acquired the violin from a Cologne-based dealer. The Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation was founded in 2005 with the goal of promoting the musical training of young people and fostering the legacy of composer Franz Hofmann.

Upon her death, Hagemann willed the instrument to the foundation. The foundation's board then consulted a panel of experts to discuss the details of the gift. In summary, they determined that the instrument's origins should be identified before initiating costly restoration procedures.

Close up of the Guarneri Geige from Nuremberg Photo: Thomas Senne

It's an instrument with a complicated history

Why the unusual approach? Fabian Kern, chairman of the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, says that "an expert's opinion of this violin was blackened." To be more precise, during Nazi times. The Foundation wants to proceed the most morally sound way possible. It also wants to avoid a situation like the recent Cornelius Gurlitt case, where the history of numerous artworks has come into question.

Forced sale during Nazi times?

Another professional examination of the violin revealed that the registered owner's name - F. Hildesheimer - had been airbrushed away, a detail only modern detection methods could identify. The investigation found that a Felix Hildesheimer had purchased the instrument in 1938. He was a respected Jewish musical instrument dealer from Speyer, who had been forced to sell his business to the Nazis just one year prior. His wife had been deported to France in 1940. Shortly thereafter, she fled to North America.

Months of research about who owned the instrument before and after the Hitler dictatorship, whether it was confiscated by the Nazis, and who acquired it after World War II was fruitless. Out of despair, Felix Hildesheimer tossed himself in front of a train in 1939.

The search for possible survivors of the Jewish musical dealer also led to nowhere - even after the involvement of the Central Council of Jews or the international "Lost Art" registry, which catalogues valuables that were stolen from mostly Jewish owners by the Nazis. The foundation obtained the address of Hildesheimer's daughter, now 100 years old, who had immigrated to America. But all their letters had remained unanswered.

Answer from America

Now the matter seems to have taken a new twist. At the beginning of February 2014 a grandchild of Hildesheim, living in the US, contacted the Nuremberg-based foundation via email.

With such a fresh lead, it remains to be seen whether the instrument's story can be explained, or whether it can be used as a "Violin of Reconciliation" after all. Nevertheless the grandchild's insight may help illuminate the dubious history of this valuable instrument. Until answers are found, the speculation continues.

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