A Painting Looted by and Returned to Nazis Finally Goes to Its Jewish Owners

New York Times 20 March 2019
By Nina Siegal

“View of a Dutch Square,” attributed to Jan van der Heyden, was one of about 160 looted from the Kraus family in 1941.

AMSTERDAM — A cathedral in Germany has agreed to return a Nazi-looted painting to the heirs of Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, an Austrian Jewish couple from whom it was stolen in 1941, according to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has spent the last eight years negotiating the restitution.

The painting, “View of a Dutch Square,” attributed to the Golden Age painter Jan van der Heyden, was one of about 160 looted from the Kraus family in 1941, retrieved by the Allies after the war and returned to the Bavarian State. But instead of ensuring its restitution to the family from which it was stolen, the Bavarian government sold it back to the heir of the Nazi official who bought it during the war.

“I’m excited and happy that it’s coming to a resolution, but I’m struck both by the weight of my family and the solemnity of the occasion,” John Graykowski, an American great-grandson of the Krauses, said in a telephone interview from Xanten, Germany, where church officials were expected to turn over the painting on Thursday.

The Kraus family fled Austria in March 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, leaving their collection behind. Three years later, the Gestapo seized it and sold it; the van der Heyden painting went to Hitler’s friend and photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.

Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach, in 1958. The Bavarian government had sold the painting back to her, as the heir of the Nazi official who bought it during the war.

“I’m the first one in my family to actually see this painting in 80 years, since 1938,” Mr. Graykowski added. “It took 80 years, but it shouldn’t have even taken eight, since the first time we presented the incontrovertible evidence and that it belonged to my family.”

The painting has belonged to the Roman Catholic Xanten Cathedral, also known as St. Victor’s Cathedral in Xanten, since it purchased the work in 1963, without knowing that it had been looted, church officials said. The painting features St. Victor’s in the background.

“I have certain difficulties to speak of a ‘return’ of the painting,” Hans-Wilhelm Barking, the chairman of the cathedral foundation, known as the Dombauverein Xanten, wrote in a statement. “This term may imply that the Dombauverein may not have acquired the painting lawfully and may not have become the lawful owner. I therefore prefer the term ‘surrender,’ which is done voluntarily in recognition of the Nazi injustice.”

The case is part of a larger scandal that came to light in 2016, after research by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe discovered that hundreds of artworks had been restituted by the Bavarian State to former Nazi owners and their heirs.

After the war, the state sold the work back to Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach, Hoffmann’s daughter and Hitler’s secretary, for 300 Deutschmarks, which was then roughly $75. She sold the painting at an auction house in Cologne to the cathedral for 16,100 Deutschmarks, about 54 times as much.

“It’s a very extraordinary case that revealed this remarkable, previously unknown history,” said Anne Webber, founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “Almost 78 years since these paintings were seized from the family, this is only the seventh painting to be returned to them. But there are another 160 missing.”
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