Tragic art trove of a persecuted philanthropist

The Times 21 September 2004
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

AN IMPORTANT art collection is to be auctioned in London after its chance discovery. It belonged to a Jewish philanthropist who died just as he was to be deported to a Nazi concentration camp.

Old Master and Impressionist paintings, as well as decorative works and documents, were found during the hasty removal of material from the basement of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie during the devastating floods of 2002.

Thousands of masterpieces were rescued when the River Elbe flooded into the vaults of the Zwinger Palace, home of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, one of Europe’s greatest collections of Old Master paintings.

About 4,000 works were carried to safety by staff, volunteers and the Armed Forces. Within four hours, they would have been destroyed. It was during this operation that an employee of the museum noticed a label on some of the boxes she was carrying. The label read “Steinthal”.

They were subsequently found to have been owned by the Jewish German businessman, Max Steinthal, whose property was seized by the Nazis.

The collection has been returned to his heirs, who have decided to sell it through Sotheby’s. The collection is expected to fetch more than £3 million in a series of sales beginning on November 16.

Steinthal was a major benefactor and patron of the arts, jointly giving Millet’s November to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1897.

Born into a successful bourgeois family, he began as an apprenticeship at the Paderstein Bank when he was just 16.

As an intelligent, hard-working young man, he rose quickly through the ranks. In 1873, when asked by a director at the fledgeling Deutsche Bank whether he wanted to become head clerk, he replied: “Not at all. I want to be a director.”

At just 23, he was made a board director of Deutsche Bank. He went on to dedicate his working life to the bank, eventually becoming chairman of its supervisory board from 1923 to 1932. The growth of Deutsche Bank in the late 19th-century is largely credited to his vision and energy.

For much of his life, Steinthal and his wife, Fanny, lived in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin in a fashionable villa that reflected their wealth and sophisticated taste in art. But in 1935 he resigned from the bank because his Jewish faith had become a political embarrassment.

In 1939, after the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the Steinthals were forced to sell the house and found themselves homeless. They took lodgings in Berlin where Steinthal died penniless, two weeks before his 90th birthday and just as he was due to be deported to a concentration camp.

Although stripped of all material wealth, they had been determined that the works of art they loved so much should be saved from the hands of the Nazis. After his death, Fanny appointed her Gentile son-in-law as executor to her will. He transferred the collection to his villa in Dresden. In seizing the Steinthals’ property in Berlin, the Nazis were unaware of the items that had been transported to Dresden.

After the war, escaping the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic, the executor fled to the West. Everything he had owned was then confiscated by the East German Government on the ground that it was Feindvermögen — enemy property. His house and all its contents, including the Steinthal collection, were seized and sent to the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. It remained there, overlooked and largely forgotten, until it was brought to light by a natural disaster.

Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s head of restitution, said: “And so it was that, when the worst of the floods was over and the employee was able to return to the boxes and research the name, the tumultuous story of the Steinthal collection was unravelled.” The collection includes important 19th-century works by the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, estimated to fetch up to £2.5 million, and the Italian, Giovanni Segantini, estimated at some £1.8 million.

Mr Simmons said: “These two paintings shed a fascinating light on the romantic and highly personal vision that guided Steinthal’s acquisitions. Both Sorolla and Sengantini held the working classes in great respect, and both believed in the essential good to be found in humankind, however humble. This is a philosophy to which Max Steinthal, himself a major benefactor and philanthropist, clearly subscribed.”

There are also 19th and 20th-century works by some of the most celebrated artists of the day, including Les Baigneuses, a fine gouache by Camille Pissarro, and prints by Picasso, Munch and Manet.

Mr Simmons said: “Taken together, the various elements that make up Steinthal’s collection provide a great insight into the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of one of Germany’s leading 19th-century financiers. More than that, the haunting story that lies behind the collection lends to each piece a historical significance that adds substantially to its already considerable intrinsic interest.”
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