Backlash over return of looted art

The Guardian 10 December 2006
Jason Burke and Claudia Keller

The painting hanging in his parents' living room in Berlin is one of his dearest memories. Percy Henschel's home was destroyed a long time ago and his mother killed by the Nazis, but the 74-year-old German is convinced that the work, a magnificent religious painting in oil by the 16th-century artist Lucas Cranach, still exists, hanging on the wall or in the vault of a German or Austrian museum, and he is determined to find it.

'The last time it was seen, it was hanging on a wall in Hitler's chancellery,' Henschel said. 'This painting represents all that I lost. This is why it is so important for me to get it back.' And Henschel, who has been hunting the painting for decades, now has fresh hope. Seventy years after the Nazis stole their property, a new wave of Jewish families is winning back valuable artefacts in Germany and Austria. What was once a trickle of successful claims has become a flood.

But now there is a backlash. German politicians and museum directors are expressing fears about the break-up of key collections and, after years of recognising the moral rights of claimants, are questioning the motives of those pursuing the claims.

Last month half of the works auctioned at a record $500m sale in New York had been handed over by European museums. They included a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the German Expressionist master, unhooked from Berlin's Brücke Museum in August and handed to its rightful owner - Anita Halpin, chair of Britain's Communist party - who sold it for £20m.

The heirs of the owners of paintings by August Macke, Lyonel Feininger and Franz Marc have all demanded that the works be returned. Stuttgart's Staatsgalerie museum was asked to hand over Marc's 1911 oil painting The Little Blue Horses, the Wilhelm Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen has a claim for Kirchner's Judgment of Paris, and the Sprengel Museum in Hanover has been asked to return another Marc. More than a dozen state-owned German museums are affected by the claims.

In Austria, months after the nation lost a series of hugely valuable paintings by Gustav Klimt, Vienna's Albertina museum faces the prospect of handing over 4,000 works.

'We are talking about very large numbers of works for which there is often a huge demand in a very crowded art market and which thus command huge prices,' said one London-based art consultant. 'The lawyers involved also make a lot of money. Whatever the moral case, all that cash and the fact that the works are leaving Europe and going into private collections often puts people's backs up. They think it's some kind of racket.'

It touches profoundly sensitive issues. November's sale of the Kirchner inflamed tempers. The German government's decision to return the work to Halpin, granddaughter of Jewish art collector Alfred Hess, was criticised by commentators, art historians, museum directors and even German auction houses. Many said the restitution claim was not legitimate, as the Hess family had sold the painting voluntarily to a Frankfurt businessman in 1936. Bernd Schultz, of the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach, wrote in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the restitution was a 'betrayal of the German nation', allowed only because Germans were 'proud of their guilt'. Schultz controversially alleged that the claim was merely motivated by greed. Ludwig von Pufendorf, director of the Bruecke Museum Foundation, talked of 'a business' with 'nothing to do' with moral restitution. Such words have fuelled fears that anti-Semitic images are returning.

Erika Jakubovits, head of an association in Vienna helping Jewish families with restitution claims, said: 'All the old stereotypes are surfacing again ... There is much talk about "rich Jews" supposedly plundering German and Austrian museums in search of money ... a lot of families are not at all rich. They just want to have back what belonged to them.'

A recent development is a decision by a Berlin court to give a music publishing house - holding original scores by Bach among others - protected status as national heritage. Peters publishers was owned by a Jewish family before being expropriated by the Nazis in 1939, but the ruling denies the family's heirs any right to make a restitution claim. Julius Schoeps, of the Moses Mendelssohn research centre in Potsdam and a prominent member of Berlin's Jewish community, recalled a decision by German judges in the 1930s denying Jews property because they were not German Aryans. He is afraid the same logic may be applied again.

Percy Henschel is not bothered by the row. 'It does not matter how long my search will go on. I won't give up,' he told The Observer. 'This is what I owe to my parents and grandparents who were very proud of their German cultural heritage and of their painting.',,1968561,00.html
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