Culture Minister Urges Munich to Review Return of Looted Klee

Bloomberg 18 May 2009
By Catherine Hickley

German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann urged the mayor of Munich to review his decision to reject a claim by the heirs of the pre-World-War-II owner for a painting by Paul Klee that was stolen by the Nazis.

In a letter to Mayor Christian Ude, Neumann proposed that a government panel headed by the former Constitutional Court judge Jutta Limbach should rule on whether the Klee work must be restituted to the heirs of Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers, a German art historian who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927.

“I have been watching with increasing concern recent reports on the discussion that has been going on for years about a possible restitution of Paul Klee’s ‘Sumpflegende,’ Neumann said in the letter, a copy of which was made available to Bloomberg News. “I think the moral authority of the advisory commission would be a good basis for a pragmatic conclusion.”

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. She emigrated to Moscow to join the Russian artist El Lissitzky, 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 ($5.4 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.

German ‘Responsibility’

Stefan Hauf, a spokesman for Ude, could not immediately be reached for comment. Ude rejected the claim in January, arguing that paintings stolen for the Nazi exhibition are not included in international guidelines for the restitution of looted art. Those guidelines also say that the law prohibits local authorities from giving away property.

Germany is one of 44 governments and organizations that agreed to the non-binding Washington Principles in 1998, pledging to seek a “just and fair” settlement for the prewar owners and heirs of art looted by the Nazis. A conference in Prague at the end of June will review how the principles have been applied in different countries.

“Germany can justifiably point to very many efforts made to live up to our responsibility as regards the Holocaust, even if there remains much to be done,” Neumann wrote.

“Against the backdrop of the international debate, we must carefully examine all signals that we send in restitution cases to avoid damaging Germany’s image abroad,” the letter said.

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 Munich and the Gabriele Muenter Foundation in 1982. It has hung in the city’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.

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