German government steps in with €1.2m to buy looted Kirchner painting

The Art Newspaper 3 April 2017
By Catherine Hickley

Wilhelm Hack Museum acquires The Judgement of Paris from heir

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Judgement of Paris (1913)

The German government has stepped in with €1.2m to enable the Wilhelm Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen to buy back a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner that was looted from a Jewish family during the Second World War.  

The painting, The Judgement of Paris, is a “key picture in Kirchner’s oeuvre” and a jewel in the museum’s collection, Germany's culture minister Monika Grütters says in a statement. “It is to be especially welcomed that the city of Ludwigshafen and the Wilhelm Hack Museum succeeded in reaching a fair and just agreement with the heir of the earlier owner,” she says.

The settlement with the heir of Alfred Hess, a Jewish shoe-manufacturer whose family was persecuted by the Nazis, comprises donations from sponsors including the chemicals company BASF SE and the Ernst von Siemens art foundation, as well as the German government. Grütters also praised a “generous compromise” on the price on the part of the heir.

Provenance research showed that the painting was among several that Tekla Hess, Alfred’s wife, was forced to store in the Cologne Art Association in 1937. She emigrated to the UK in 1939, joining her son Hans Hess. After the war, the Art Association told her the stored paintings had been destroyed. 

It later emerged that many of them had been looted from the cellar and resurfaced on the art market—among them The Judgement of Paris, which ended up in the possession of Wilhelm Hack, a Cologne businessman whose art collection led to the foundation of the Ludwigshafen museum.

The Hess family, who lived in Erfurt, had one of the most comprehensive collections of German Expressionist art when the Nazis came to power, with around 4,000 works by artists including Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde and Paul Klee. 

The heir, who lives in the UK, recovered Kirchner’s Street Scene from the city of Berlin in 2006. It fetched $38m at a Christie’s sale and is now on show at the Neue Galerie in New York.
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