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Dispute over Guarneri violin

Heike Mund
January 27, 2021

A Jewish music dealer sold the valuable violin in 1938. But the question is whether he chose to sell it or was forced to do so by the Nazis.

The violin was crafted in the 18th century in Italy's Cremona
The violin was crafted in the 18th century in Italy's CremonaImage: Franz Hofmann und Sophie Hagemann Stiftung

A violin crafted by the famous violin maker Joseph Guarneri stands at the center of an ongoing dispute between a foundation and the heirs about whether it falls within the category of "Nazi looted property" or was sold without coercion before 1945.

The valuable instrument was made in the 18th century — in Cremona, Italy, a stronghold of famous violin makers. The Guarneri violins are equally famous as the precious string instruments by Antonio Stradivari.

The owner of this particular violin was the music dealer Felix Hildesheimer, who had acquired it in 1938 from the instrument shop Hamma & Co. in Stuttgart. Shortly thereafter, due to his Jewish ancestry, Hildesheimer was forced to sell his home and music store in Speyer under Nazi race laws and the decree of the infamous "Reich Flight Tax," also called "escape tax."

Looted Art in the Third Reich - The Saulmann Case

His attempts to obtain a visa to flee to Australia failed. On August 1, 1939, Hildesheimer took his own life. His widow was interned by the Nazis in the Gurs prison camp in southern France and finally managed to escape via Marseille. His two daughters also managed to emigrate to America.

In the foundation's hands

In 1974, the violinist Sophie Hagemann (1918 - 2010) from Nuremberg acquired the Guarneri violin, which was built in 1706. With her music group, Duo Modern, she dedicated her concerts to the so-called "degenerate music" that was banned during the Nazi regime. She was married to the composer Franz Hofmann, who was killed at the front in 1945.

After her death in 2010, the precious instrument became the property of the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting young musicians. According to the foundation, the instrument is in poor condition and must undergo restoration.

Professor Daniel Gaeda presents the Guarneri violin
Professor Daniel Gaeda presents the Guarneri violin that Sophie Hagemann playedImage: Thomas Senne

Upon closer scrutiny, it was discovered that the provenance of the historic instrument was incomplete: there was only information and evidence about the change of ownership in 1938 and about the purchase in 1974. Further investigations revealed that Felix Hildesheimer was the last owner. The board of the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation decided to "proactively clarify" a possible restitution claim, as stated on the website.

Debate over restitution

The attempt by the foundation to reach out to descendants of the Hildesheimer family failed at first. Then, US journalist Toby Axelrod heard about the case and managed to establish contact between the foundation in Germany and one of Hildesheimer's daughters.

In 2015, the Advisory Commission on the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a Result of Nazi Persecution, Especially Jewish Property (formerly, Limbach Commission) was called in to clarify the case. The experts' and provenance researchers' recommendation from December 16, 2016, stated: "...that the violin [...] remain with the foundation and that the foundation pay an amount of €100,000  ($120,000) to the heirs as compensation."

Violinist Sophie Hagemann
Sophie Hagemann became the owner of the Guarneri violin in 1974Image: Franz Hofmann und Sophie Hagemann Stiftung

Both sides accepted this as a fair and equitable solution, it was said at the time. Since then, the foundation board says it has been attempting to garner the compensation amount from third-party funds. However, no payment has yet been made to the heirs in the US, who are now Felix Hildesheimer's grandchildren, as The New York Times also reported on this week. 

Confiscated by the Gestapo

Meanwhile, there is allegedly new research from which one could draw the conclusion that music dealer Felix Hildesheimer sold the violin as a "normal article of trade" and not "escape-related." It did not appear in the list of forcibly expropriated items that the family had drawn up after the war, according to the foundation's argumentation.

Artworks found in the possession of Nazi official Hermann Göring
Many plundered artworks were found to be in the possession of top Nazi official Hermann GöringImage: CPA Media/Pictures From History/dpa/picture alliance

The Advisory Commission disagreed: "The furniture left behind was confiscated by the Gestapo and auctioned off." Therefore, the instrument is clearly to be classified as "Nazi-looted property," according to the final assessment of the commission, which, however, may only make recommendations. Valuables and furniture belonging to Jewish families had been sold by the Nazis at so-called "Jewish auctions" — possibly including the Guarneri violin. After the war, the instrument reappeared on the market.

Once the Guarneri violin has been restored, the foundation said it would like to make it available to young, highly talented musicians at the Nuremberg University of Music as an "instrument of understanding." That, however, would only be possible once the legal issues have been resolved.

This article has been adapted from German.