Hoe musea hun voordeel deden met de wanhoop van vluchtelingen - How museums took advantage of the desperation of refugees

De Standaard 29 November 2022
By Geert Sels

To read the article in Dutch as published with images, please see the two PDFs of the article here (p.1) and here (p.2).

English translation

Refugees traded art for visas or donated paintings to get protection: during the Nazi period, Belgian museums managed to enrich their collections on favourable terms.

Even before the first Nazi set foot on Belgian soil on 10 May 1940, problematic art ended up in our museums. Could there have been Nazi looted art at that time? Our country has long assumed not. The research conducted so far used a time window from 1940 to 1945. That is an aberration.

The term 'Nazi looted art' is a catch-all term that does not just refer to 'art looted by Nazis'. It can even refer to works of art sold, if there was a compulsory sale or sale under duress. It also includes 'escape goods': art that people got rid of to move, pay for a boat trip, survive in hotels or make a living. Under normal circumstances, they might have kept their art.

Research by this newspaper uncovered several such cases. For example, that of art dealer Paul Rosenthal and his fiancée Frieda Victor, who had had to leave their gallery in Berlin as early as 1934. Then they had spent a year in a Swiss hotel and three years in Amsterdam. In 1939, they wandered between Brussels and Knokke, where relatives lived. They were waiting for a visa to the United States that tragically would never come. His immigration file shows that Rosenthal's capital was limited to 80,000 francs, but that he had paintings worth one million francs.

'Very poorly represented'

In the spring of 1940, he decided to monetise two of them. He offered 'Orpheus and the Animals' by Roelant Savery and 'Musical Company' by Willem Buytewech to Antwerp's Museum of Fine Arts. The museum seized the opportunity to enrich its collection on advantageous terms. Of Buytewech 'the museum owns nothing', the curator wrote in his recommendation to buy the work. About Savery, he wrote that 'this master is very poorly represented in our museum' and that the opportunity now presented itself to buy 'a truly representative work in advantageous conditions'. He had been able to reduce the asking price of 110,000 francs for the two works to 75,000 francs, 'which we may regard as a good thing.'

For Rosenthal, it was to no avail. On the eve of the German invasion, the Belgian authorities arrested several thousand people of German nationality and deported them to camps in southern France. The fear was that they would join the occupying forces. Rosenthal, who had just fled from the Nazis, was thus once again at the mercy of his attackers once the Nazis also occupied France. In the summer of 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz. There he perished.

Benno Seegall had already fled to Brussels in 1936. His sister Emmy and her husband stayed longer in Berlin. Until, in October 1938, they felt their safety was at risk. As their visa application was not progressing, they engaged a Belgian lawyer. The latter made five interventions over the next few weeks, first asking for a response with "bienveillante promptitude" and then pointing out that "la situation est intenable". And then, on the night of 9-10 November, the Kristallnacht pogrom of Jews was to come.

In early December, Benno Seegall donated drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec and Liebermann to Brussels' Museum of Fine Arts. Was he thus trying to create goodwill for his sister's visa application? After all, that application went falteringly in the wrong direction after Belgium tightened its migration policy. When she was rejected in early 1939, the lawyer made an ultimate proposal: if the couple were granted a visa, the Brussels museum could in exchange choose 10 works on paper from the family's collection.

Advanced desperation

The family was granted a visa and the works are still in the museum. They include a watercolour by Magnus Zeller and further drawings by Lovis Corinth, Otto Greiner, Adolph Menzel and Hugo Krayn. A donation, as stated in the museum register, one could hardly call this. This was art in exchange for a visa - an expensively paid one, moreover. The motive was not self-selected generosity, but advanced desperation under pressure of circumstances. Had the couple not feared for their lives, they would not have surrendered their art.

For many a refugee, Belgium was a stepping stone to freedom. The Viennese metal trader Heinrich Tiefenbrunn had cleverly used a business visa to get his family into the country. Then he had to gather the budget for the big crossing. A boat ticket from Lisbon to the United States cost $800 per person - calculated at today's value, that's $15,500. So Tiefenbrunn offered an Italian landscape by Bartholomeus Breenberg at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Once again, the museum gasped to enrich its collection. 'This painting would fill a gap,' the curator recommended the purchase.

When Viennese art restorer Moritz Lindemann tried to enter Belgium in autumn 1938, he said he wanted to consult with the Brussels museum about a painting 'which could be very valuable for the Belgian state'. With that, the door opened. But not for long: in March 1939, he received a 'feuille de route', an imperative exhortation to leave the country within six months. From then on, Lindemann was between hammer and anvil. He had escaped the anti-Jewish measures in Vienna, but his new country would rather lose him than lose him.

'So-called friend'

Lindemann had money, his immigration file says, yet he also received financial support from his daughter in London. That he needed money was evident when he had sold Cornelis van Haarlem's painting 'Ceres and Bacchus' to the museum in Antwerp. He then wrote a bitter letter to the curator that "the so-called friend" had let him down "with excuses about the money". Lindemann not only had to make a living, he also lived in constant worry about his survival. He sought protection to remain in Belgium. He invoked his proven services to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna to get exemption from the Star of David. The Vienna museum dropped him like a brick.

Under this star, Lindemann donated two paintings to the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts in 1941:' Portrait of a Woman' by Govert Flinck and 'The Apprentices of Emmaus' by Pieter Huys. It could not suffice to protect him. In 1943 he was arrested and taken to the Dossin Barracks - after three weeks he was released thanks to an intervention by Queen Elisabeth. Afterwards, in a fit of insanity, he went to turn himself in to the Nazis. While he was in a mental institution, they emptied his home and confiscated six paintings. Nothing was ever heard of Moritz Lindemann again.

The gallery of Jewish art dealer Samuel Hartveld in Antwerp was unattended after he fled to New York. Based on Belgian archives, it was known that the Nazis looted his art books and catalogues in 1942. But what happened to his paintings? The answer could be found in archives in Paris. These showed that the Nazis appointed an administrator for the gallery and the paintings stock. After a single A4 financial audit, that manager decided to liquidate the business and leave it to an Aryan manager at a bargain price. The latter sold the 'Portrait of Bishop Antonius Triest' to the Bijloke Museum in 1948. This painting by Gaspar de Crayer is now part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.


The same museum will soon receive a renewed claim for Oskar Kokoschka's 'Portrait of Ludwig Adler'. Back in 2009, German lawyers asked for the portrait back once on behalf of the heirs of the banker Victor von Klemperer. The latter allegedly sold it under duress in the 1930s. In 2011, the city of Ghent rejected the claim - after that, the lawyers did not hear anything more. Case closed, everyone thought. It still appears on a German database of lost artworks. According to the contact, the family disagreed with the decision of the city of Ghent and saw no reason to drop its claim. Belgium will have to get ready for a second round.

Another old case is being revived. In 2004, Belgian police seized the 'Portrait of Mary Magdalene' that had been brought into the Royal Institute for Art Heritage (KIK) for laboratory examination. There, it was recognised as a piece from the collection of Belgian Emile Renders. The latter had sold part of his collection to Hermann Göring in early 1941 after a months-long sales flirtation. Via Göring's trading partner, it entered the German market in the 1960s and found its way to a Norwegian owner. It was his son who brought it into KIK in 2004. The latter has now announced that he is launching an initiative to reclaim it.

From Geert Sels Kunst voor das Reich' ('Art for the Reich'), Lannoo Publishing, 2022, 450 pp.
This article was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.
Standaard journalist Geert Sels is associate researcher at Cegesoma, the Study and Documentation Centre War and Contemporary Society.

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