NordLB Returns Franz Marc’s Cat Painting to Jewish Family Heir

Bloomberg 24 March 2009
By Catherine Hickley

Norddeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale AG, a state-owned bank based in Hanover, Germany, returned a painting by Franz Marc to the descendant of a Jewish shoe-manufacturing family persecuted by the Nazis.

The Hess family, who lived in Erfurt, had one of the most comprehensive collections of German expressionist art at that time, with about 4,000 works by artists including Max Pechstein, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Paul Klee. In 2006, the city of Berlin restituted Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” to the sole surviving heir, who lives in London.

Marc’s 1910 “Cat Behind a Tree” was one of several paintings that Tekla Hess sent to Switzerland for protection from the Nazis in 1933. It was sold to Pelikan AG, a maker of ink and stationery, in 1936. Though it isn’t known whether Hess received any money in the transaction, under German restitution law, art sales by Jewish collectors made after 1933 are assumed to be forced. NordLB bought the painting in 1983.

“Whatever the legal situation, we decided that there was a moral obligation to give the painting back,” Jan-Peter Hinrichs, a spokesman for NordLB, said by telephone from Hanover.

Hundreds of thousands of artworks belonging to Jewish collectors were seized by the Nazis or subject to forced sales between 1933 and 1945. Restitution claims by Nazi victims and their heirs have multiplied since 44 governments agreed on a set of non-binding principles at a conference in Washington in 1998.

Amicable Settlement

Under those principles, governments pledged to track down the pre-World War II owners of looted art and to reach a “just and fair solution” with the owners or their heirs. Yet not all cases are resolved amicably: the German government, for instance, this month appealed a court ruling demanding the return of a poster looted by the Gestapo to the heir of the pre- war owner from the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

The restitution of “Cat Behind a Tree” was agreed on in December, according to the heir’s lawyer, David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York. NordLB set no conditions, though both parties agreed to try to keep the painting on public view, he said. The bank had loaned the painting long-term to the Sprengel Museum in Hanover.

The restitution, which both parties agreed should be confidential, was reported in the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung on March 21.

“NordLB and the Sprengel Museum were very cordial and acted in accordance with the best practices in the area of restitution,” Rowland said by e-mail. “The bank and museum treated the family with the utmost respect and consideration for the circumstances of the loss of the artwork.”

Marc Exhibition

“Cat Behind a Tree” will for now stay at the Sprengel Museum as part of an exhibition of about 200 works by Marc, Macke and Delaunay that opens on March 29 and runs through July 19.

Both the bank and the heir’s lawyers declined to comment on the painting’s value. The record price for a Franz Marc painting was fetched at a Sotheby’s auction in London last year. “Weidende Pferde III” (Grazing Horses III) sold for 12.3 million pounds ($24.5 million at that time.)

NordLB has a collection of about 3,000 artworks, with the emphasis on postwar art. It owns works by Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sol LeWitt, Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis and Joerg Immendorff, among others.

Erfurt Home

The Hess family regularly hosted artists, musicians and philosophers at their large home in Erfurt. Christian Rohlfs and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff came to show their latest works; Paul Hindemith brought his quartet to the family home, according to the book “Verlorene Bilder, Verlorene Leben” (Lost Art, Lost Lives) by Monika Tatzkow and Melissa Mueller.

The shoe manufacturer Alfred Hess died in 1931, leaving the house and paintings to his wife Tekla and son Hans Hess. Hans left Erfurt for Berlin, where he worked for a publishing company until he was fired on race grounds in 1933.

He fled for France and then England in 1936. His mother joined him in London in 1939. After the war, Hans Hess filed a claim for the lost art from the German government and was told that restitution was impossible because none of the paintings could be traced. He received one-time compensation of 75,000 deutsche marks for the entire collection, according to “Verlorene Bilder, Verlorene Leben.”

Tekla Hess died in 1968 and her son Hans Hess died in 1975, leaving behind one daughter, the claimant.

According to the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, two more paintings that belonged to the Hess family are in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart: Lyonel Feininger’s “Barfuesserkirche 1” and Marc’s “Kleine blaue Pferde” (Small Blue Horses.)

Rowland declined to comment on the other Hess claims.

“We can state that the Hess family is committed to pursuing its claims in a responsible manner which takes into account the public interest,” Rowland said by e-mail.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at
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