Nazi Loot Panel Weighs Artwork Claim by Auschwitz Victim’s Heir

Bloomberg 17 November 2011
By Catherine Hickley

A German government panel will today determine whether two Expressionist paintings in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie should be returned to the heir of a Jewish textiles entrepreneur murdered at Auschwitz during World War II.

The paintings by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff belonged to Robert Graetz, a Jewish collector and businessman in Berlin who was deported to Poland in 1942. The pictures -- a 1920 self-portrait and a 1910 landscape titled “Farm in Dangast” -- were in Graetz’s villa until at least 1933. How he lost them is not known. They were purchased for Berlin in 1953.

Buenos Aires-based Roberto Graetz, the grandson and heir of Robert Graetz, says even if the details of their loss are unknown, there can be no doubt that it was a result of Nazi persecution and the paintings should be restituted. His claim will be weighed by the panel, led by former constitutional court judge Jutta Limbach, at a meeting in Berlin, Graetz said.

“My family first started trying to get these paintings back in 1946, after the war; it has now become my mission, ” Graetz said in a telephone interview after arriving in Berlin for the decision. “My grandfather lost his possessions, his villa, his business, part of his family and his life at the hands of the Nazis.”

Graetz’s claim may reopen a debate that flared in 2006, when Berlin returned a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the descendant of a Jewish family who sold the work in 1936. Like Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff was a member of the Bruecke group of artists, along with Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Otto Mueller.

Record Price

The restitution of Kirchner’s 1913 “Street Scene” sparked indignation from some Berlin art experts, curators and lawyers, and led to an enquiry in the regional parliament. The opposition accused then-Culture Senator Thomas Flierl of handing it back too readily, and said he should have consulted Limbach’s panel.

The Kirchner painting fetched $38 million at a New York auction in November 2006. The top price ever paid at auction for a work by Schmidt-Rottluff was almost $6 million for the 1913 “Akte im Freien -- Drei badende Frauen” (Outdoor Nudes --Three Bathing Women) at Christie’s in London in 2008, according to the Artnet database.

Robert Graetz co-owned a clothing company that employed about 80 people and specialized in ladies’ coats and suits. Like many wealthy Jews in Germany before World War II, he used his prosperity to build an art collection, purchasing as many as 200 works in the 1920s and 1930s.

Dix, Liebermann

He focused on contemporary artists like the Bruecke group, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, and German impressionists such as Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth, according to a study by Angelika Enderlein, “The Berlin Art Trade in the Weimar Republic and in the Nazi State.”

Graetz was forced to wind down his business and sell his villa and possessions. By the time of his deportation in 1942, he owned almost nothing, Enderlein’s book says. The family’s efforts to recover the art collection have so far been in vain.

“All the rest of the paintings are missing,” Graetz said. “These are the only two we have found.”

Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the two Schmidt- Rottluff works from 1933, when they were definitely in Graetz’s possession, until 1953, the year they were sold by a former Berliner then living in Paris called Ernst Graetz, who was probably not related, according to a report commissioned by the Berlin senate and obtained by Bloomberg News.

The Limbach commission last judged a Nazi-era art claim in January 2009. It can only be called if the claimant and the current holder of an artwork agree, and has made recommendations on just four claims since it was founded in 2003.
© website copyright Central Registry 2022