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Nazi-looted art: the case of the missing perspective.

ART RESTITUTION GIVES A VERY LIMITED PICTURE OF what the general public and the art and museum worlds should understand about an artwork and who owned it. Obviously, if families had artworks stolen during the Nazi era, they should be able to claim them. It would be most unfortunate, however, if all that is remembered about restitution is the claim of the heirs--mostly for something that belonged to their parents or grandparents--who often have little or no knowledge of what their grandfather collected.

The looting is the end of the story. We have an opportunity not to be missed. This is not simply about getting a painting back. Restitution must be seen from a historical perspective and within a historical context. We need to look at how people built their collections, how they contributed to the arts. They were not just decorating their homes; they were patrons of late 19th and early 20th century art in Europe.

Restitution should be an entrance into the world of Jewish collectors and the contributions they made to the arts. It needs to be done. It would be most unfortunate if, in the end, this whole episode is remembered because of the restitution claims. Jewish collectors were a significant part of European cultural life. This is not of interest to the Jewish community alone. Due to the disproportionate role that Jewish collectors, dealers, curators and artists played in the space of a few years, it is significant to the city, the region, the country where they lived. It is important for European cultural history--and it needs to be recognized.

What is missing is the joyous celebration of their contribution--so there is a counterbalance to this restitution aspect, which many critics and others view with a certain cautiousness and even resentment. This may help the public to better understand why the heirs are making these claims and why the issue has come up two generations later: because their ancestors made significant contributions that ought not be forgotten.

We who toil in the restitution field constantly deal with criticism that has a more-or-less strong anti-Semitic undercurrent. A commonly heard complaint from those who would deny the heirs their due is this one: "Now these people come along 60 years after the war and make their claims because now these works of art are valuable. Do these people then keep these works? No, they give them to the auction house, and cash in on the paintings."

There are a variety of legitimate and quite practical reasons why the heirs head for the auction houses. For example, if there are five heirs, how are they to share one painting? It takes deep pockets to fight for a piece of looted art and this is money many heirs do not have. Once their patrimony is recovered, how else can they cover their losses?

Such criticisms and the responses to them, however, obscure the greater issue: We should use this opportunity to recognize, for the benefit of all of us, these collectors. Who were these people? What were their motives? In what activities did they engage? What were their relationships with artists and art institutions? What might have gone unnoticed if these collectors had not been attracted to a particular style or artist?

In long run, it is much more important that these restitution efforts be used to re-establish a name. No one knew about Ismar Littmann or Max Silberberg of Breslau for two generations before the restitution claims came up. Look at the Bloch-Bauers. (1) The claim for the Gustav Klimt paintings went on for years. Thanks to the research of the late Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, we now have quite a bit of information about them: who they were, how their relationship to the artists is to be understood. That is not the case, however, for the majority of the other European Jewish collectors. With the exception of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts and other big-ticket items that get into the newspapers, we learn little or nothing about the collectors and their relationships to the artists.

When I began researching this some years ago, the scholarly community had overlooked and forgotten about the contributions of the art patrons. You could read about the art and the artist, but only in the footnotes were there occasional references to the patron of a particular artist or to the collector who had a strong interest in him or her. Go to any lecture by an Old Masters curator and he would give you all the details on Duke XYZ and how Duke XYZ supported this artist and how important that relationship was in the late 16th century. We have references in the literature all the time about patrons of the arts--but not for this period, despite the fact that this was such a short-lived but extremely productive, prolific time--engaging so many people for a generation.

Granted, Impressionism and Expressionism did not enjoy worldwide recognition until after World War II. I cannot say how much appreciation an Ernst Kirchner or a George Grosz enjoyed in the 1920s outside of Germany--but that is beside the point. It was a period of wide political, social and economic upheaval worldwide. In Germany, we saw the emergence of a Jewish upper and middle class who became art patrons. This development was not limited to Berlin and Frankfurt. Indeed, go to Kemnitz and Breslau, and other smaller cities--and you find a small but successful Jewish community that, within a matter of a few years, clearly left its imprint on the community, particularly in the arts. It is hard to overlook.

I am not a man of statistics, and I cannot speak of every German town with more than 50,000 people. Wherever I go, however, it is always the same story--there was a strong interest by members of the local Jewish community in the arts. This was not limited to the fine arts; the story is the same for music and the theater. Many of those in the fine arts, it seems, were not well-established collectors. We have many situations where people in their 20s and 30s were actively collecting, who were in the process of building their collections and, in doing so, developed close relations with museums, dealers and artists.

For the purposes of determining whether a claim can be pursued, I have to learn about that particular collector, that particular family and the history of that family--and that does not begin in 1933, but often goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. When you see that certain names reappear over and again in certain places, a whole world begins to appear before your eyes--and we do not know anything about that world. I find many collections with works by artists about whom nothing is known, because the artist and the collector are gone.

Ismar Littmann in Breslau apparently was particularly fond of local Jewish artists. To whom can I go to ask about Paula Grunfeld? There is no book that was written that discusses her--yet Littmann had a half-dozen of her paintings. There are the exceptions, true. One such is Isidor Aschheim, who later on in Israel became a well-known name. Yet there is also Heinrich Tischler. I learned this much about him: He perished in Buchenwald. Littmann had hundreds of works on paper from Tischler. Why would he buy several hundred Tischler drawings and prints within a number of years? The only logical, reasonable assumption is that he probably supported the artist, and in the course of supporting him acquired all these works of art in exchange.

I know of hundreds and hundreds of works of art that figure prominently in some of those Jewish collections. The collectors were more than willing to support the artist and the art--to buy it for their own collections, support exhibitions, acquire works for museums. They supported these artists because they believed in them, and backed up their appreciation with money. Indeed, that is why you find in some of these Jewish collections a high concentration of contemporary art.

Looking at a man such as Littmann, or Heinrich Rieger in Vienna--these people had large collections, and some of the contemporary artists were represented in the collections with a considerable amount of art. Again, the only explanation is that they had relationships with the artists that went beyond simply being interested in the art. They supported these artists.

That is what should characterize an active collector--taking risks. Anyone who collects contemporary art takes risks. Some pieces of art turn out to be worthwhile investments and everyone praises you a generation later for your foresight. Many of these collectors, however, unless they could take their art into exile, either did not live long enough or did not hold on to the art long enough to find out whether they made the right decisions. God alone knows whether, if things had worked out differently, some of these artists would have gained recognition and appreciation thanks to the patronage they enjoyed.

In the long run, this is the aspect we need to remember and the information we need to recapture when we discuss th erestitution of Nazi-looted art. It is unfortunate that over the years, nothing has materialized that would have given those collectors an opportunity to be recognized, to be celebrated, to be enjoyed by the masses in exhibitions of their works and in books on the art of their age.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (2) in Berlin said that, in this effort, there is a double obligation. One comes out of the events of the Nazi period, an obligation to serve justice to those people who lost their works of art. It also said, however, that an obligation exists to these families for reasons that go beyond the Nazi period. Many of those families were collectors, patrons of art and supporters of the very institutions against which their descendants now have claims. Therefore, part of the foundation's historical obligation comes out of that appreciation of the contributions that those families, those collectors, made before 1933. If you look at the pre-war membership roster, more than half of the supporters of the National Gallery were Berlin Jews.

Not every Jewish collector lost art due to Nazi persecution. Some clearly ran into other problems and lost their collections due to other circumstances. There is nothing wrong in having an interest in a collector who, due to economic reasons, liquidated his collection in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The contribution to the creation and vitality of the European art world is still the same. Yet, persecution and restitution are clearly very important aspects of the period and for those to whom it applies, it cannot be ignored. The Nazis were fully successful in "collecting" this art--whether by sending the collector to a concentration camp or driving him or her into exile. Because the Nazis also disliked contemporary art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they also drove much of the art into exile or into the bonfire. All of it is gone--the artists, the collectors, the art.

Look at the success of the recent MoMA exhibition in Berlin. (3) What were the comments of the museums people? "Our art is finally coming back home." The homecoming, however, is merely temporary.

The whole milieu, the infrastructure, of that world is gone. It is not just the collectors, but the socio-economic context within which they bloomed and that enabled them to purchase this type of art has disappeared. The art, the artists, the dealers who often brought the artists together with the collectors--many of them were Jewish: Alfred Flechtheim, Paul Graupe, the Cassirers, Max Stern--and they, too, are all gone. Looking at a Cassirer catalogue from the mid-1920s, one would be surprised at how many van Gogh and Cezanne paintings he exhibited, either because he had them for sale or because he had them on loan from his clients, many of whom were private German collectors, many German Jews among them.

It was such a short-lived period. The few items we still have--the few letters, the few articles and other testimonies--from those days often are so full of enthusiasm, optimism and hope. "This is going to be the beginning of something beautiful and exciting," these items tell us, "and we do this not just for ourselves, but because we will enrich people around us."

The available material is not limited to what people were hanging on their walls. They provide insights, as well, into the lives of collectors. How many references I have read over the years about collector so-and-so being in trouble with his wife yet again because instead of being there for Shabbat, he is out with his artist friends. And there are the stories of the "lost weekends" at grandfather's house because the place was always full of these sort of "low-life artists who ate our food, drank our cognac, smoked our cigars and all the talk was art, art, art, art, art."

These collectors were committed. Whatever business or profession they were in that permitted them life's luxuries, art was all over their homes and so were the artists and even, at times, curious curators. They were well-to-do people and they were not all elderly. Young people, too, made themselves available with their checkbooks--buying art, supporting artists. They had countless publications, exhibitions, art associations, a strong interest for contemporary art. This was a lively scene and people were willing to participate in it without being concerned about whether they were betting on the wrong horse. Their point of view was that here was a promising, emerging artist and he or she needed to be supported.

To be sure, it was not always so rosy a picture. Some of the Jewish collectors were pretty rough business people, particularly the ones in Vienna. Some owned textile factories in Bohemia and Hungary, where workers' rights in the early 20th century were not much considered. We are not dealing here with an assembly of angels, but of human beings each with their own faults and prejudices. In the end, however, the cultural contribution they made was palpable. We owe them historical justice and recognition of the contributions they made before the looting of their collections and the persecution of their bodies began.


(1) In January 2006, an Austrian arbitration panel determined that five paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) should be returned to the heirs of Viennese sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. The Austrian government had vigorously resisted the claim because the paintings, including an iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, were considered Austrian national treasures. The paintings were subsequently sold. In June 2006, former Ambassador Ronald Lauder, now the president of the World Jewish Congress and a noted art collector, paid a reported $135 million, a record for a painting, for a gold-flecked 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

(2) The foundation (Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK) governs the German federal museums and established the restitution policy for reunified Germany.

(3) More than 1.2 million people visited the exhibition of works from New York's Museum of Modern Art at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, which ran from February to September 2004.

WILLI KORTE is a German-born art investigator based in Silver Spring, Md. who has been involved in many prominent cases of looted cultural properties, including the recovery of the medieval church treasures stolen during World War II in Quedlinburg, Germany.
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Title Annotation:First Person Singular
Author:Korte, Willi
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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