Heirs sell off Nazi-acquired art

BBC 4 August 2006

A painting seized by the Nazis, which was later returned to the descendants of its Jewish owners, is expected to raise up to $25m (£13m) at auction.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Strassenszene, Berlin, shows a city street scene, and was one of 11 paintings of his portraying everyday life.

It is "the most significant German Expressionist picture ever to come to auction", Christie's Germany said.

Nearly 600 of Kirchner's works were destroyed by Nazis in the 1930s.

It is not clear exactly how Strassenszene, Berlin, was taken from its owners, Jewish collectors Alfred and Thekla Hess.

"It is believed this was a forced sale which was not planned with the knowledge of the widow Thekla Hess," Andreas Rumbler of Christie's told the Reuters news agency.

"Money was paid by the collector in 1937, but we have to assume the widow never saw the money. We have to assume it was taken by the Nazis," he said.

Kirchner was considered a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis, he added, but they may have seen the commercial value in selling on his work.

Nervous breakdown

The artist was a leading member of The Bridge, a group of young Germans who had been inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

He served briefly as a soldier in World War I but suffered a nervous breakdown in 1915 from which he did not fully recover.

He committed suicide in 1938 at the age of 58.

His work is the latest valuable piece of Nazi-acquired art to be sold on quickly after being returned to owners.

A Gustav Klimt portrait fetched a reported $135m (£71m) - the most ever paid for a painting - in June, while a picture by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele was sold for nearly $22m (£12m) the same month.

Kirchner's painting will be sold in New York on 8 November.
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