ARTIST GEORGE Grosz’s biting portraits of Weimar German life hang in museums around the world, from Vienna to Tokyo – unjustly, say the artist’s children.
They have launched a campaign to reclaim and reunite, in a dedicated museum, dozens of paintings looted by the Nazis after the Grosz family fled to the US in 1932.
The left-wing artist’s caricatures of flabby prostitutes and corrupt politicians, a scathing critique of German life, made him a figure of loathing among the German right. When Nazi stormtroopers broke into Grosz’s atelier, hours after Hitler rose to power in January 1933, they destroyed dozens of works. Others were put in an exhibition of what the Nazis called “degenerate art”.
Grosz had left behind hundreds of works in Berlin in the trust of his Jewish dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, who himself had to flee, carrying only a few paintings.
In exile in the US, Grosz’s son Marty said his father was left “sad and furious” about the uncertain fate of his paintings.
Many turned up again over the years: in 1952, the artist discovered a work in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The person who sold the painting to the museum for $850 claimed to have inherited it from Grosz’s dealer, but provenance research in recent years suggests this was not the case.
Ralph Jentsch, administrator of the Grosz estate, believes many pictures left behind by Flechtheim ended up with a Dutch dealer who auctioned them off without contacting the Flechtheims or the Grosz family.
The New York museum argued it was entitled to retain the work considering the passage of time.
Other museums have argued that the pictures belonged to Flechtheim, not Grosz, at the time of their sale. Still others argue that their Grosz works were first sold after the war, and not under wartime duress.
The Grosz heirs say the arguments are designed to sidestep the grounds for restitution arising from the 1998 Washington Conference on Looted Art. “The Grosz works are definitely a good Washington conference case as he was persecuted, left behind works which were later scattered to the wind,” said David Rowland, a leading restitution lawyer.
“The problem is that the Washington conference agreement doesn’t have teeth in it; it needs enforcement.”
Today hailed as a master of expressionism, Grosz was an unhappy, unlucky man who drifted into alcoholism and died in 1959 after falling down a flight of stairs.