Dresden Museum on restitution: It’s okay—take the pictures

Surprisingly resigned attitude to restitution claims by a leading German museum


Some of former East Germany’s most distinguished museums are adopting a surprisingly resigned attitude to the recent spate of restitution claims that followed the change in legislation on portable goods confiscated in the aftermath of the land reforms of 1945-48. A “mass exodus of masterpieces”, or similar disaster scenarios prophesied by popular news magazines, is not likely to materialise.

Much has been made of such a threat in the case of the Dresden State Collection (see The Art Newspaper, No. 52, October 1995, p. 17). The biggest single claim comes from the descendants of the princely House of Wettin, the rulers of Saxony. Precise figures of the works of art that have come from the Wettin country houses in the area around the city have not yet been released, as lists are still being compiled. But although hundreds of paintings, kept in store at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, and as many pieces of furniture, partly displayed at Museum Schloss Pillnitz near Dresden, will be affected, the gallery director, for one, will be more relieved than aggrieved to see so much canvas go.

For decades, the Wettin pictures have taken up valuable storage space, though their interest is almost completely limited to family history, and few of them would attract much attention outside Dresden. For that reason, the setting up of a foundation, jointly owned and run by the family, the city, the State and the museum would be a preferred solution, say officials of the Gemäldegalerie and the state administration. A foundation would also bar the sale of individual items, particularly of furniture, which is still a real threat, say insiders.

Precisely such threats have been averted in the case of the Speck von Sternburg collection, housed in the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig since 1948. Here, a foundation is already agreed between the heirs, the museum, the city and the State of Saxony. It will be financed by the formal sale to the nation of a Cranach and a Rogier van der Weyden. This agreement can indeed be regarded as the rescue for the public of a first rate collection of Old Masters and nineteenth-century paintings of international interest.

The withdrawal of these pictures, 208 in all, would have wiped from the walls of the museum more than a quarter of those it keeps on permanent show.

The collection was put together by the nineteenth-century nobleman and entrepreneur Maximilian Speck von Sternburg for his country mansion of Lützschena near Leipzig. House and estate have been in ruins since the end of the war. Although the estate was confiscated, the contents of the house were left for plundering and eye witnesses report how the director of the Leipzig Museum carried the pictures in bags and on foot to the safety of his museum. His determined action was one of the main reasons why the legal title of the heirs to the collection was considered to be less than clear-cut.