Berlin’s Brücke Museum settles with the heirs of a Jewish collector on Kirchner painting

The Art Newspaper 4 June 2024
By Catherine Hickley

The work, showing two of Kirchner’s fellow artists playing chess, was sold under duress by the Berlin dealer Victor Wallerstein after he fled to Italy from Nazi Germany

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel und Otto Mueller beim Schach (1913) In honorable memory of the former owner, the art historian, gallery owner and collector Victor Wallerstein (1878–1944)

The Brücke Museum in Berlin reached a settlement with the heirs of a Jewish art dealer who was forced to sell an important painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, now in the museum’s collection, after he fled Nazi Germany.

The 1913 painting, Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess, depicts two of Kirchner’s fellow artists in the Brücke group deeply engrossed in their game while Erna Schilling, Kirchner’s partner, lies naked on the sofa behind them. It is the last painted documentation of the Brücke community before the group dissolved.

Its Jewish former owner, Victor Wallerstein, was an art historian, dealer, collector and patron of contemporary artists. He founded a gallery in partnership with Fritz Goldschmidt in 1919 in Berlin, where they exhibited works by the Brücke group, among others. In 1934, under Nazi rule, the dealership was forced to close.

Wallerstein fled to Italy, where he was further persecuted under Italian racial laws. He had no means of making a living and was forced to sell art from his collection to make ends meet. He sold Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller Playing Chess in 1940 and died in Florence in 1944.

“For the heirs, the fair and just solution of this restitution claim represents an acknowledgement of the pain, terror and tragedy to which the innocent Wallerstein family was subjected,” Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said in a statement. “It is also a recognition of the cultural contribution that Victor Wallerstein and his siblings made to the arts and society in Germany.”

The parties agreed to keep the amount of the settlement confidential. The German government, the Berlin senate, the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States and the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation all contributed to the settlement.

“Coming to terms with Nazi art theft and dealing with the fates of the predominantly Jewish victims are tasks of immense importance for society as a whole,” said Joe Chialo, Berlin’s senator for culture. “We are and remain committed to fulfilling this task for the people and their families who were robbed of their property and rights, persecuted, and murdered by the National Socialists.”

An exhibition opening at the Brücke Museum on 1 September will focus on the biographies of nine Jewish personalities who were instrumental in supporting and promoting Modern art in Germany, among them, Victor Wallerstein. The painting he once owned will feature prominently, the museum said.
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