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German Lawmakers to Return Nazi-Looted Bismarck Canvas to Heirs

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Bloomberg 11 November 2009

By Brian Parkin

Germany’s parliament will return an oil painting that’s hung in lawmakers’ offices for decades to its rightful heirs after discovering the artwork was looted from its Jewish owner in the Nazi era.

The portrait of Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was painted in 1896 by Franz von Lenbach and owned by Herbert Gutmann, the son of Dresdner Bank’s co-founder. His heirs tracked down the portrait to the legislature’s offices in 2007, parliamentary spokesman Christian Hoose said today.

“Clearly this picture belongs to the heirs and we’ll return it once an agreement has been signed with them,” Hoose said in a telephone interview from Berlin. He said parliament’s own experts had established the authenticity of their claim to the picture, which was bought from a private collector in the 1960s. Hoose declined to name the collector or specify in which offices it was hung in Bonn and Berlin. “We want to give it back as soon as possible.”

The discovery has sparked a drive by the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, to check if there’s any other looted art among some 200 pre-World War II works adorning its premises, Hoose said. The legislature will use external experts to check ownership, he said.

Over 95 percent of the 4,000 artworks on loan to lawmakers and parties in Bundestag offices in Berlin is postwar, underlining Germany’s efforts to “look ahead” as a modern democracy, Hoose said. They include works by Neo Rauch, Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz.

Aryanization

Gutmann held an advisory role at Dresdner in 1934, when Nazis proceeded to “aryanize” the bank, ousting Jews from jobs, “Die Dresdner Bank im Dritten Reich,” a history of the bank in the period by Dieter Ziegler and Johannes Baehr. Parliament has agreed to protect the Gutmann heirs’ identity, Hoose said.

Altogether, the Nazis stole about 650,000 works, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. Forty-four states agreed on the 1998 Washington principles on Holocaust-era assets. Under that non-binding accord, nations agreed to achieve a “just and fair solution” with the pre-war owners of art seized by the Nazis that was never returned.

Von Lenbach became a fashionable painter in the second half of the 19th century, portraying subjects including Emperors Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, as well as Bismarck, according to Natalie Radziwill, an expert on German art at Berlin-based auctioneer Grisebach. The “Iron Chancellor,” who died in 1898, was painted several times by von Lenbach.

Portraits by the artist in a Grisebach auction planned for this month, including two of Bismarck, have an estimated price range of $4,400 to $44,000.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Parkin in Berlin at bparkin@bloomberg.net.

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