A German government panel has said that the Museum Ludwig in Cologne should return a portrait by Oskar Kokoschka to the heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer who was one of the Nazis’ early targets for persecution based on his sales of “degenerate” art. The museum’s director, Philipp Kaiser, said it will seek a settlement with Flechtheim’s heirs that will allow the painting to remain in the museum.
In 2008 Flechtheim’s great-nephew, Mike Hulton, filed a restitution claim for the painting, Kokoschka’s Portrait of Tilla Durieux (1910), saying that Flechtheim sold it under duress for a price well below its market value. In addition, there is no evidence that he received any proceeds from the June 1934 sale to art collector Josef Haubrich. The museum countered that Flechtheim was already in financial trouble and sold the painting to pay off debts dating from before 1933. In fact, he painting was actually sold by Alex Voemel, one of Flechtheim’s former employees—and a Nazi.
This case highlights issues plaguing many restitution cases: what exactly constitutes a forced sale, and how does one prove that a sale took place under duress? The sale price obviously is one indicator, but so too is the seller’s financial means, as is the case with the Kokoschka. In this case, the German government presumed duress, even in the absence of concrete proof, considering all the circumstances under which the work was sold: “Because of an absence of concrete evidence, it is to be assumed that Alfred Flechtheim was forced to sell the disputed painting because he was persecuted.”
In another recent case, the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a prominent Jewish gallery owner in Paris prior to World War II, are demanding that Norway’s Henie Onstad Arts Center return a Matisse painting that was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 from Rosenberg.
Rosenberg’s heirs have documents showing that the painting, known as Woman in Blue in Front of Fireplace or Blue Dress in Yellow Armchair, was owned by Hermann Goering in 1942. The painting was one of about 160 works that German soldiers seized from the Rosenberg Gallery’s vaults as part of the Nazis’ program of large-scale confiscation of Jewish-owned art.
The museum, however, says it purchased the painting in good faith over 60 years ago, giving it ownership rights to the painting under Norwegian law. The museum claims it did not know of the painting’s Nazi past, and that it never tried to hide its ownership of the painting, which it has lent to several European museums. But as Marianne Rosenberg, Rosenberg’s grand-daughter, observes: “The onus is not on the claimant to have to go scooting around looking in every catalog and small museums hunting for their stolen art.” The museum is continuing negotiations with Rosenberg’s family and studying the works’ provenance. To date, the museum has refused to return the work, but instead is has offered to post a plaque next to the Matisse, acknowledging that Rosenberg had owned it. The family rejected the offer.