Berlin Will Return $4 Million Paintings to Auschwitz Victim’s Jewish Heir

Bloomberg 18 November 2011
By Catherine Hickley

Berlin’s regional government said it will return two Expressionist paintings in the Neue Nationalgalerie museum to the heir of a Jewish textiles entrepreneur who was murdered at Auschwitz during World War II.

The paintings by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff belonged to Robert Graetz, a Berlin businessman who was deported by the Nazis to Poland in 1942, after losing his villa and possessions. The pictures, a 1920 self-portrait and a 1910 landscape titled “Farm in Dangast,” are now valued at a combined $4 million.

A German government panel, led by former constitutional judge Jutta Limbach, today said in a statement that the loss was almost certainly a result of Nazi persecution and the paintings should be returned. Torsten Woehlert, spokesman for Berlin Culture Secretary Andre Schmitz, said the city will follow the panel’s recommendation. It will also approach the heir to discuss a possible purchase of the paintings, he said.

“You can’t undo the past, but it is possible to achieve a little bit of justice,” said Roberto Graetz, the Buenos Aires- based grandson and heir of Robert Graetz, in an interview in Berlin after the panel’s decision. “There is a sense of deep satisfaction at this conclusion, but the feelings are contradictory, because those who suffered are no longer here.”

Germany is one of more than 40 countries that endorsed the non-binding Washington Principles on returning looted art in public collections. The German government, states and municipalities pledged in a separate agreement to seek a “fair and just solution” with the heirs for art in public collections that was lost from private ownership due to Nazi persecution.

Bruecke Artists

The exact circumstances of the loss of the Schmidt-Rottluff paintings are not known. They were in Graetz’s villa until at least 1933, and probably until 1938. They were purchased for Berlin, at a low price, in 1953.

Berlin argued that it was possible Graetz had not lost the paintings as a result of Nazi persecution. The panel dismissed that view, saying the evidence was stacked against it given the historical context and the extent of Graetz’s suffering.

Schmidt-Rottluff was a member of the Bruecke group of artists, along with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Otto Mueller. 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.

Street Scene

Berlin in 2006 returned Kirchner’s 1913 “Street Scene” to the descendant of a Jewish family in a controversial restitution decision that sparked a regional parliamentary inquiry. The painting later fetched $38 million at a New York auction.

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.

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.”

Banned From Trade

Graetz’s company was forced to wind down in 1938, as after the end of the year, no Jews were permitted to run businesses or engage in trade in Germany. Graetz lost his income and had to sell his villa and its contents to survive. In 1942, he was forced to pay a “Jewish asset tax” that left him with almost nothing, according to Enderlein’s book.

“My grandfather lost everything he worked for, and then died in a camp,” said 60-year-old Roberto Graetz, owner of a wholesaler in sporting goods in Buenos Aires. “My family first started trying to get these paintings back in 1946, after the war. The decision is good for us, for my children and my children’s children.”

Robert Graetz’s daughter, Hilda Rush, emigrated to South Africa in 1935 and his son, Hellmuth Graetz -- Roberto Graetz’s father -- fled to Buenos Aires in December 1939. Though Robert Graetz and his second wife sent her 14-year-old son to London in 1939, they both remained in Berlin until they were deported.

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. This is its fifth recommendation since it was founded in 2003.
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