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Heirs of Jewish Art Collectors Pursue Works Sold in Nazi Era

1970
1945
Washington Post 21 January 2008

By Craig Whitlock and Shannon Smiley
Washington Post Foreign Service

"Berlin Street Scene," by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, spent decades in Berlin but was returned in 2006 to the granddaughter of Jewish art collector Alfred Hess.

DRESDEN, Germany -- When the Nazis came to power, Fritz Glaser was a marked man. A wealthy Jewish lawyer, he was also well known as a collector of modern art -- works condemned by Hitler as "degenerate" and soon banned under the Third Reich.

Miraculously, Glaser survived the Holocaust and the 1945 Allied firebombing of this city on the Elbe River. But his precious art collection was in shambles. During Nazi times, when Jews were routinely pressured to sell property at nominal prices, he was forced to liquidate much of his collection, according to his family. Amid the postwar wreckage, he sold a few remaining pieces to raise cash and saw the others confiscated by the communists before he died in East Germany in 1956.

A half-century later, Glaser's sole remaining heir is fighting an uphill battle to win back some of his artworks, which are now ranked as masterpieces. Armed with scraps of wartime letters and faded exhibition catalogs, Glaser's 69-year-old daughter-in-law is trying to prove he was coerced into selling his treasures to unscrupulous Nazi art dealers.

"In Germany, we really have difficulty in getting back artwork that was taken during the Holocaust," said Sabine Rudolph, an attorney for the heir, Ute Glaser. "It's a real problem, how to check these records. The museums don't want to know about any mistakes. They don't want to give private researchers access to their archives."

Today one of the sought-after artworks, "Max John," a 1920 oil-on-cardboard painting by the German portraitist Otto Dix, anchors the collection of the Freiburg Museum of Modern Art. Another, a 1918 watercolor by Paul Klee, is a prominent part of the collection at a museum in Munich. Art experts estimate each is worth millions of dollars. The museums have been reluctant to give up the paintings, saying there's no clear evidence of their history.

Ute Glaser is one of tens of thousands of people in Germany and elsewhere who six decades later are still seeking redress for crimes of the Nazi era -- slave labor, confiscated houses and stolen artwork among them. Artwork has proved one of the thorniest issues to resolve.

In 1998, the German government signed a pact known as the Washington Declaration, endorsing guidelines adopted by 43 countries for returning art and other assets seized during the Holocaust. A year later, Germany issued a follow-up pledge to comb its museum collections to determine if any pieces had been confiscated by the Nazis or sold under pressure.

But progress has been slow. German institutions have reported identifying more than 5,000 pieces that were possibly owned by Jews in the Nazi years, from 1933 through 1945, said Michael Franz, director of Germany's Lost Art Internet Database, but his agency has helped return only about 40 artworks in the past five years.

For one thing, German regulations governing such cases are complex and murky. Some rules say that by definition any sale by a Jew after 1938 was under duress; thus essentially all that must be demonstrated is that a sale took place. In other cases, specific evidence of coercion is required.

Museum directors say the biggest obstacle is a lack of funds to research the often-muddled provenance -- or ownership history -- of their collections. Some heirs suggest the bigger problem is museums that don't want to help.

Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a billionaire art collector, praised Germany for its overall commitment to compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs. But he said museums must do more. "It's very, very important that the last prisoners of World War II be released, if in fact they've been stolen."

Issues of Responsibility

Lauder is co-founder of New York's Neue Galerie, home to many valuable works purchased from Jewish heirs who won them back from European museums after often-bitter disputes. Among them is "Berlin Street Scene," a 1913 painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner that was displayed for decades in a small state-owned museum in Berlin.

The painting was once owned by a Jewish art collector and shoe manufacturer, Alfred Hess. He sold it in 1936; heirs later argued successfully that he was pressured to do so by the Gestapo.

In July 2006, after two years of secret negotiations, Berlin museum officials agreed to return the painting to Anita Halpin, Hess's granddaughter and head of Britain's Communist Party. Halpin in turn auctioned it to the New York museum for $38 million, prompting an outcry from German art devotees, who feared it would lead to a flood of other claims and blank spots on gallery walls across the country.

The fallout prompted Germany's minister for cultural affairs, Bernd Neumann, to call a summit of museum directors in November 2006. The group reaffirmed that Germany had a moral obligation to return stolen art. Two months ago, Neumann announced the creation of an office for provenance research.

Some museum officials, however, criticized the German government, saying it has given the issue low priority and failed to take overall responsibility. "In Germany, we say, 'Yes it's necessary, yes, we need to do it,' and then we forget it," said Martin Roth, managing director of the Dresden State Art Collections, the second-biggest museum system in the country, in an interview last fall.

Museums in Berlin have returned 19 artworks in the past eight years and in four other cases negotiated settlements to keep items in exchange for compensation, said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, director of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees many of the capital's art collections.

Germany continues efforts to recover artwork taken by occupying forces after the war, particularly to Russia, Lehmann noted. "If we expect to get things back from Russia, we cannot hide things we have that belong to Jewish communities," he said. "We wouldn't be credible otherwise."

One Family's Quest

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Fritz Glaser's son, Volkmar, tried to find out what had happened to his late father's art collection. Volkmar, who had been forced into slave labor by the Nazis, had migrated to West Germany after the war and had only limited contact with his father, who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

He won back a few pieces, including a famous portrait of his father by Otto Dix, but met mostly with failure. His main obstacle was a lack of hard evidence. Jews in Nazi Germany weren't allowed to own art or other property after 1938, so any records were usually destroyed.

Volkmar Glaser died in 1997. A year later, when the German government signed the Washington Declaration, his widow, Ute Glaser, decided to resume the family quest.

With the help of a lawyer, she found a valuable clue: a 1929 exhibition catalogue from a Dresden museum that listed several works from Fritz Glaser's collection. The catalogue proved that Glaser owned the art shortly before the Nazis came to power. But what had happened to it?

One piece was in plain view. "Max John," another Dix portrait, was on exhibit at the Freiburg Museum of Modern Art in southwest Germany. The museum had bought the painting at auction in 1959 from a private collector.

A lawyer wrote the museum on behalf of Ute Glaser in December 2004 to ask if it had any other records about the painting. The museum replied that it did not, and has been eager to let the matter drop, according to Sabine Rudolph, Glaser's attorney. "In every case, you hit the point where you can't go any further," she said.

Jochen Ludwig, director of the Freiburg museum, declined to comment on whether his institution attempted to do any more research on the ownership history of "Max John" or if the work should be returned to Ute Glaser. "As far as I can recall, no demands were made for any action," he said. "Even if I could recall more, I would first need to consult our legal department."

Another painting once owned by Fritz Glaser, "Harbor Scene," by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, was in possession of a Munich museum, the Pinakothek der Moderne.

Records establish that Glaser bought the watercolor in 1921. But what happened to it over the next half-century remains a mystery.

Officials from the Munich museum said the next citation of the Klee painting came in 1968, when it was listed as part of the collection of Theodor and Woty Werner, two artists who themselves had run afoul of the Nazis as practitioners of "degenerate art." The Munich museum acquired "Harbor Scene" from the Werners in 1971.

In an April 2006 letter, Munich museum officials informed Glaser that they would try to clear up the painting's provenance, but were "skeptical" they would be able to do so. Glaser and her lawyer haven't heard from them since.

Carla Schulz-Hoffmann, deputy general director of the Bavarian State Collection of Paintings, which owns the Klee work, declined requests for an interview. In a statement, she said the painting's ownership history before 1968 "cannot be determined from the documents we have at our disposal."

Ute Glaser's efforts stalled. Then, in late November, she found another clue in her late husband's files: a wartime letter addressed to him by his father.

The letter, believed to have been written in 1941, confirms that Fritz Glaser was still in possession of "Max John" and another Dix painting at that point and hints that he was under dire financial pressure to unload them. "We are in negotiations on a sale of two artistically very significant, but representationally very unattractive Dix paintings," Glaser wrote. "Hopefully, it will work out."

"Horrid, horrid this devastation of the German cities," he added, in an accurate prediction of what was to come. "All of us here fear that the day will come for Dresden, too."

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