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Kirchner Painting At Heart of Restitution Dispute

DW staff (kjb)
August 19, 2006

When the Berlin senate unexpectedly returned a Kirchner painting to the heirs of its original Jewish owner, critics protested that it's not a World War II restitution case. The work is now awaiting auction at Christie's.

This work, not a Kirchner, was returned to its owner after being stolen by the NazisImage: AP

Two elegant women, brightly dressed, walk along a crowded street. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner used this scene to capture the German capital in his painting "Berlin Street Scene" from 1913.

This painting is now the object of a fierce restitution dispute involving the Berlin state senate, a Berlin museum, the Ernst-Ludwig-Kirchner Archive and the heirs of the painting's original Jewish owner.

It is currently scheduled to go under the hammer at Christie's auction house in New York, where it could bring in between 14 and 19.5 million euros ($18 to 25 million). Such a selling price would make it the artist's most expensive work.

Kirchner and painting owner rejected by Nazis

Kirchner, a master of German impressionism, created the work in the same year his artist group Die Brücke broke up. Many big-name impressionists -- like Emil Nolde, Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse -- were part of the group, whose name "The Bridge" symbolized the links its members sought to establish between artistic styles.

Kirchner and the other members of Die Brücke were denounced by the Nazis after Hitler came to power in 1933 because their work conflicted with the party's rejection of modernity, particularly in art.

Now a flurry of controversy has arisen over whether the purchase of the painting from the Jewish family of the deceased original owner Alfred Hess in the early years of the Third Reich by a German art collector may have been forced because of anti-Semitism and the price set artificially low. If so, the work could qualify for restitution.

Painting returned to Hess heir

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Künstlergruppe
Kirchner's "Group of Artists" depicts members of the "Die Brücke" groupImage: Museum Ludwig Köln

In late July, Berlin's senate, which had been in possession of Kirchner's 1913 painting, unexpectedly returned it to Hess' heir in England. Though the move came as a surprise, secret negotiations had been underway for almost two years already.

Barbara Kisseler, Berlin's state secretary of culture told the daily newspaper Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that the masterpiece was returned because it had come to their attention that the Hess family had been unfairly treated during the Nazi dictatorship.

"Moral considerations" played a significant role in the decision, she said.

Shortly after the restitution of the piece was made public, the New York auction house Christie's announced it had purchased the Kirchner work and planned to auction it on November 8.

Critics claim restitution not legitimate

In a joint statement, the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive near Bern, the Brücke Museum and the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach have publicly protested the return of the Kirchner painting, claiming it had been legally purchased.

They wrote that the Berlin senate had been "dilettantish" in dealing with "German museum property."

Alfred Hess was an avid art collector and successful shoe factory owner, but plunged into insolvency during the global economic crisis in the late 1920's. When he died in 1931 his family brought the Kirchner work to Switzerland.

In 1936 or 1937 -- the exact date is unknown -- the painting was sold to collector Carl Hagemann in Cologne, allegedly for a sum of 3,000 Reich marks, and brought to what was then Nazi Germany.

Until recently, the legitimacy of the sale had not been questioned.

Details of sale remain unclear

Malerei Berlin Straßenszene von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Debate rages on who should get the "Berlin Street Scene" in the endImage: AP

The Berlin senate now contends that Carl Hagemann's purchase price was either so low that it took advantage of the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime, or that the money never made it into their hands at all.

"As in many similar cases, the family fortune mainly consisted of works of art, which were sold in order to make a living," Wolfgang Henze, art historian and administrator of the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive, wrote the Berlin senate, as reported by FAZ. "Fortunately, the Hess family managed in time to get their collection abroad."

The open letter from the Kirchner Archive, the Brücke Museum and the Berlin auction house also pointed out that the Hess family sold paintings on a regular basis over an extended period of time, which could indicate they were not coerced into selling the "Berlin Street Scene."

Christie's had a part in the restitution

While it has not yet been firmly established if the transaction between Carl Hagemann and the Hess family in the mid-1930s was fair, Christie's speedy acquisition of the painting has raised eyebrows.

Ludwig von Pufendorf, chairmen of the Brücke Museum board and Berlin's former state culture secretary, told German radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio Kultur that Christie's financed the entire restitution process.

Christoph Stölzl, another former state culture secretary in Berlin and the general director of the German Historical Museum for over 10 years, told the online news site netzeitung.de: "The Kirchner case sets a dangerous precedent for Germany's cultural heritage in the classical modern field."

He added that "the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive estimates that the return of 80 to 100 paintings could be demanded" if the restitution of the Kirchner piece is not repealed.
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