The heir to a prominent Jewish art dealer who fled Adolf Hitler’s Germany urged the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to relinquish paintings by Paul Klee and Juan Gris that he says were lost due to Nazi persecution.
Alfred Flechtheim was one of the earliest collectors of Pablo Picasso in Germany and among the best-known art dealers in Europe before World War II, representing Klee, George Grosz and Max Beckmann as well as the French Cubists. His great-nephew Mike Hulton, a medical doctor based in California, first contacted the Dusseldorf museum that houses the two works in 2008.
Five years later, Hulton says there is enough evidence that Klee’s “Feather Plant,” a 1919 oil painting, and Gris’s “Still Life (Violin and Inkwell)” from 1913 were part of Flechtheim’s private collection and sold under duress. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen argues there’s room for doubt and more research is needed. The two paintings are worth several million euros each, said Markus Stoetzel, Hulton’s lawyer.
“There is no doubt that Uncle Alfred sold the painting by Juan Gris probably for next to nothing when he was on the run” from the Nazis, Hulton wrote in response to e-mailed questions. “The same applies to the painting by Paul Klee. We are asking for late justice. My aged stepmother Penny and I are very disappointed and somewhat puzzled -- we hope this emotionally stressful and difficult situation will come to an end soon.”
Flechtheim ran galleries in Dusseldorf and Berlin, where he held dozens of exhibitions and founded an art magazine. As a Jew who sold art the Nazis condemned as “degenerate,” Flechtheim was among the first targets of persecution. He fled Germany in 1933 after a stream of hate articles in the Nazi press, escaping first to Zurich, then Paris and then London, where he settled.
He died in London of blood poisoning in 1937 after treading on a rusty nail. His Dusseldorf gallery was “aryanized” in 1933 and given to his former employee Alex Voemel, a Nazi. The Berlin gallery was liquidated later that year and his private collection sold. It included works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. In a 1933 letter to Grosz from Paris, Flechtheim said he and his wife were “poor as church mice and nervous.”
Stoetzel says the Gris painting was bought by a consortium of which Flechtheim was a member in 1921, and then entered Flechtheim’s private collection. Photos of his apartment from 1930 or 1931 show it hanging on the wall. He sent it to Zurich for an exhibition in 1933 and the catalog listed him as the owner, Stoetzel said.
The Klee painting hung in Flechtheim’s gallery in Berlin, catalogued as an item from his private collection, Stoetzel said. Both works were sold in London after his arrival there.
Anette Kruszynski, the chief curator at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, says there is not enough evidence of Flechtheim’s ownership or of the circumstances of sale in either case, and that the owners of archives which could help are denying access to provenance researchers.
“There is no doubt Flechtheim was persecuted,” Kruszynski said in an interview at her office in the Dusseldorf museum. “If it becomes clear that Flechtheim was forced to sell his paintings, or he didn’t get the money, or he sold them at below value, we would have to part with them. But we can’t prove it.”
“We would be negligent to restitute them now,” she said. “We have the feeling we haven’t got to the bottom of this and need to research further.”
A possible source of information, Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris, is not cooperating with requests for information, according to Kruszynski and Stoetzel. The gallery owns the archives of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who regularly conducted business with Flechtheim. Its owner, Quentin Laurens, could not be reached for comment after repeated phone calls.
The case raises questions about how much research is enough, and what action should be taken when historical sources are inadequate, said Uwe Hartmann, the head of the Arbeitsstelle fuer Provenienzforschung, a Berlin-based government office which allocates funds for provenance research in museums and gave money to Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.
“Museums shouldn’t be left alone with these decisions,” Hartmann said. “Politicians should make a decision in situations where the evidence leaves room for doubt. It is clear that museums can only restitute where there is certainty. It is also clear that we can’t keep heirs waiting another generation for archives to open.”
Yet the regional government is staying out of the discussion. Stephanie Paeleke-Kuhlmann, a spokeswoman for the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry for Culture, declined to comment on the Flechtheim case and directed inquiries to Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.
For the heirs, who are seeking more than 100 paintings in museums in the U.S., France, Germany and other European countries, it’s a frustrating impasse, said Stoetzel.
“It looks like delaying tactics,” he said. “We are urging Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of North Rhine- Westphalia, to make a decision. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.”
To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.