The mayor of Munich rejected a request for the return of a painting by Paul Klee from the heirs of the pre-World War II owner, a German art historian who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927.
Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers inherited the painting, “Sumpflegende” (Swamp Legend), in 1922. She loaned it and 15 other works to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum in 1926, shortly before she left Germany to join the Russian artist El Lissitzky near Moscow, whom she married, according to the book “Lost Pictures, Lost Lives” by Melissa Mueller and Monika Tatzkow. The book says the Klee is insured for 4 million euros ($5.12 million).
The painting was seized from the Hanover museum in 1937, under the orders of Joseph Goebbels, for the Nazi exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in Munich. City authorities argue that paintings stolen for the exhibition are not included in international guidelines for the restitution of looted art.
“Such paintings were not seized from private homes, but taken from the museums,” Stefan Hauf, a spokesman for Munich Mayor Christian Ude, said today in a telephone interview. Munich therefore stands by a court decision from 1993 rejecting the heirs’ claim, he said. He also cited a law banning local authorities from giving away property.
Germany is one of 44 governments and organizations that signed the non-binding Washington Principles in 1998, agreeing to seek a “just and fair” settlement for the prewar owners and heirs of art looted by the Nazis.
In the “Degenerate Art” show, “Swamp Legend” was mocked as the “confusion” and “disorder” of a “mentally ill person.” The Nazis sold it in 1941. Several changes of ownership later, the picture was acquired by the city of Munich and the Gabriele Muenter Foundation in 1982. It has hung in Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum since then.
Lissitzky-Kueppers, who was banished to Siberia by Stalin as a German living in the Soviet Union during the war, failed to recover her paintings. She died in penury in Novosibirsk in 1978.
The heirs’ lawyer, Christoph von Berg of Von Berg Bandekow Zorn in Leipzig, said in a statement that they plan to pursue the claim with the assistance of the New York-based Holocaust Claims Processing Office and through the civil courts in the U.S.
“We conclude that the claim for restitution is justified both legally and under the Washington Principles,” Von Berg said in his statement today.
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.