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A restitution which should never have happened?

More details of the German restitution case [1], which many experts insist should never have been agreed to. The more one reads about cases such as this, the clearer it becomes that such mistakes harm the many legitimate restitution cases which museum around the world should be investigating.

From:
Washington Post [2]

Restitution of Kirchner Work Criticized
By LAM THUY VO
The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 29, 2006; 1:05 PM

BERLIN — Art experts in Germany and Switzerland have criticized Berlin’s decision to hand back an expressionist painting to the heirs of the Jewish collector whose family sold it during Nazi rule in the 1930s.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting, “Berlin Street Scene,” is to be auctioned Nov. 8 by Christie’s in New York, which estimates its value as between $18 million and $25 million.

The work, depicting two brightly dressed womem on a crowded street, was removed from the Bruecke Museum at the end of July, where it had hung since 1980. It was handed over to the heirs of Alfred Hess, a Jewish shoe factory owner and art connoisseur, on the grounds that the family cannot be shown to have received payment after selling it under Nazi pressure.

Berlin city officials say restitution was an act of historical justice in line with other handovers of art lost by Jewish owners to confiscation, theft or forced sale during the Nazi period and World War II.

But critics contend that the Hess family’s decision to sell the painting in the 1930s was the consequence of Alfred Hess’ financial troubles during the Depression _ not the Nazis.

With its “amateurish actions,” the Berlin goverment has “severely damaged” German museum holdings, several critics said in a letter.

The missive was signed by Ludwig von Pufendorf, a conservative former Berlin city culture official; Wolfgang Henze of the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Archive in Bern, Switzerland; and Bernd Schultz, managing shareholder of Berlin’s prominent Villa Grisebach auction house.

They said the painting’s fate “had nothing to do with the Nazi persecution of Jewish citizens in 1933-1945” and called for a public review of the decision. They voiced concern that, if it stands, “further unfounded restitution claims will encounter open doors.”

Officials with the current city government, a left-wing coalition between Social Democrats and former East German communists, said that Hess’ family had taken the painting to Switzerland and sent it back to be sold in 1936 or 1937.

Attorneys for the heirs draw on a 1958 declaration by Tekla Hess, Alfred Hess’ widow, that she was visited by two Gestapo agents who pressured her to send paintings from Zurich back to Germany.

“I had no choice other than to give into the pressure being exerted by this all-powerful agency of the government in the hope that my own life and that of my family would not further be jeopardized,” wrote Hess, who was in Germany at the time.

The city said it could not establish whether the family ever got the money, nor was it able to disprove that the sale took place due to Nazi pressure on the family.

“In a restitution case … the city of Berlin bears the burden of proof,” said Thorsten Woehlert, a spokesman for the Berlin’s cultural department.

Hess had encountered financial trouble during to the Depression before his death in 1931, and his family had already been selling paintings before the Nazis took power, the critics said in their letter.

Andreas Hueneke, a freelance art historian and participant at the “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art”) project at Free University Berlin, told the AP that letters written to the Cologne Art Association, where the painting was sold, and other documentation did not indicate a forced selling of the Kirchner. “There’s nothing in the documents that says the paintings were sent under duress,” he said.

“If restitutions like this…will become the norm, the German art museums will face a fatal future,” historian and conservative politician Christoph Stoelzl told the online daily Netzeitung.

Much of Hess’ collection was lost or destroyed during the war. In the 1960s, Hans Hess, Alfred Hess’ son, filed a claim as a victim of Nazi persecution. His claim was approved and he was awarded only 75,000 marks, roughly $489,000 at the time; the collection however was worth 1 million marks, or roughly $652,000 then, the family’s lawyers say.

David Rowland, the family’s New York-based attorney, said in a statement that Hess’ factory did not go bankrupt but was confiscated by the Nazi government like other Jewish businesses.

The city “has done the right thing,” he said in a statement.

“The people who are trying to raise other issues at this point in time, I think, they are really trying to rewrite history… and they are trying to rewrite the restitution laws which have been in place for over 65 years,” he said.