Princess Leonie of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach lays claim to $820 million worth of property held in Weimar public institutions

Weimar, Cultural Capital of 1999, negotiates over its cultural treasures



As Weimar takes over as Cultural Capital of Europe for 1999, a twelve-year old German princess is making a legal claim to most of the art treasures in the city. Princess Leonie, heir to the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach family fortune, is attempting to recover works of art expropriated by the communist regime after World War II. At stake are paintings, which include masterpieces by Dürer and Cranach, antiques and Germany’s greatest literary archive. The entire collection could be worth $820 million.

“In cultural and emotional terms, the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach treasures represent the most important of the German princely collections,” says Prince Michael Benedict, head of the family. For Weimar, it is the city’s main cultural asset and a major attraction for tourists. Indeed without the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach collections, it is questionable whether the city would have won the bid to become Europe’s Cultural Capital.

Last April, the first legal decision on Princess Leonie’s claim was found in her favour, when it was decided that ownership of the literary archive of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller should be transferred to her. But on 3 November the State government of Thuringia blocked the decision and this move was then backed by the new Federal Culture Minister, Michael Naumann. Prince Michael describes the present impasse as Kafkaesque, and he feels that negotiations are now at a stalemate: “Naumann says I am trying to steal something from the State. I would say it is the other way around.”

Princely claim

The Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach claim was submitted shortly after the introduction of the September 1994 restitution law, which followed German reunification. This law provides a framework to compensate families whose movable assets were expropriated in the Soviet Zone during 1945-49. In practice, the main beneficiaries are the princely families. Under this Federal legislation, expropriated works of art which have been on display in museums will continue to be exhibited for twenty years, that is, until 2014. After this, new arrangements will have to be negotiated. Families are to be given rights to expropriated items which have not been displayed, and these they can either retain or sell.

The origins of the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach dispute date back to Grand Duke Wilhelm Ernst’s abdication in November 1918, when Germany’s princes relinquished power. In 1921 most of the family land was taken over by the State, but the Grand Duke retained his works of art, on condition that the most important objects were placed on public view. Two years later Wilhelm Ernst died, with his inheritance passing to his son, Carl-August.

In 1945 Weimar was occupied initially by American troops, but shortly afterwards the region was taken over by the Red Army. Carl-August fled to the West, and in 1948 the authorities in the Soviet Zone expropriated all assets of the former ruling families. The following year saw the establishment of the German Democratic Republic.

Carl-August died in 1988 in the German Federal Republic, leaving his inheritance to his one-year-old granddaughter, Princess Leonie. As his executor, he had appointed his son, Prince Michael Benedict, a business entrepreneur in Mannheim, who became head of the family. When asked why the inheritance had passed directly to his infant daughter, Prince Michael told The Art Newspaper that, “Carl-August loved his granddaughter and, as reunification had not occurred, he had no idea that it would soon become possible to reclaim works of art which had been seized from him in Weimar.”

Works of art at stake

Valuing the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach works of art and archives which are subject to the claim is extremely complicated. Some sources have suggested that the Goethe-Schiller Archive of 600,000 papers are worth at least DM600 million. The real figure could be considerably higher, and a total sum of DM1,000 million has also been mentioned. It is certain that Germany would never allow anything from the archive to be sold abroad.

One informed source claims that the family paintings could be worth a further DM300-450 million, although this figure is disputed by the director of the Weimar Art Collection. Other items, such as furniture and ceramics, might add a further DM100 million.

These figures suggest that the grand total could well amount to around $800 million, but an accurate valuation has not yet been possible, partly because a full list of the items claimed has not been compiled. The loss of some documentary material and inventories during World War II will only add to the difficulties.

Works of art claimed by Princess Leonie are now held by two main organisations. Furniture, ceramics, decorative art and, most importantly, the Goethe-Schiller Archive, are held by the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik (Weimar Classics Foundation), set up in 1991 as the successor to the National Research and Memorial Centre of Classical German Literature. The Stiftung is financed by the Federal Government (50%), the State of Thuringia (40%) and the city of Weimar (10%). The paintings in the City Castle are held by the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar (Weimar Art Collection), set up in 1922.

The difficulties in sorting out precisely which works were expropriated in 1945-49 are illustrated by the paintings. Prince Michael believes that his family is the rightful owner of most of the collection in the City Castle, but Rolf Bothe, director of the Kunstsammlungen, told The Art Newspaper that some pictures were donated by the Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach family in 1870 or in later years, while some of the remainder were purchased, donated by others, or transferred to Weimar from elsewhere during the communist period. He claims that the only paintings expropriated from the family in 1945-49 were four masterpieces, Cranach’s “Allegory of Law and Mercy” and three Tischbein portraits, around twenty other important pictures and thirty or so lesser works. This means that even if Princess Leonie’s legal right is recognised, the precise status of each painting in the City Castle will have to be determined.

The art battle

A preliminary decision on Princess Leonie’s claim was made in April 1998 by the administrative body responsible for restitution, known as LAROV (Landesamt zur Regelung offener Vermögensfragen). It ruled that she should be regarded as the owner of the Goethe-Schiller Archive.

Then, on 3 November, the cabinet of the State of Thuringia instructed LAROV to reverse its decision. Its main argument is that in December 1946 Grand Duchess Feodora, widow of Wilhelm Ernst, had signed an agreement with the Soviet Zone government to transfer ownership of the Goethe-Schiller Archive to a charity. The cabinet’s position is supported by the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, which told The Art Newspaper that “the family relinquished ownership after the war”.

Prince Michael’s side believes that the cabinet’s decision was made on political grounds. The ruling Social Democratic Party wants to keep Weimar’s art treasures in the public domain.

A spokesperson for the Thuringian government told The Art Newspaper: “We regard the Goethe-Schiller Archive as public property, which is properly preserved and open to researchers.” The cabinet of Thuringia’s decision is disputed by Princess Leonie’s lawyers on three grounds. They claim that in 1946 the Grand Duchess made the arrangement conditional on other assets being returned to the family, that she no longer held power of attorney from her son, and that the transfer did not go through the proper notarial procedures.

So far, LAROV has only ruled on the Goethe-Schiller Archive and difficult issues remain if ownership of other works of art is eventually transferred to Princess Leonie. First is the question of items which have been on public display in museums. Under the restitution law, these should continue to be on loan until 2014. After 2014, new arrangements would have to be entered into for an extension of the loans, and the family would be likely to ask for rental fee. It may well be difficult to agree on an appropriate fee, considering the value of the collection.

The other issue, which is likely to be easier to resolve, is the fate of the works of art which are currently in store, mainly in the City Castle and other properties of the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik. One source has been estimated that these number 30,000 items. Under the restitution law, they would be returned to the family if an agreement is reached.

A package deal

The few princely claims so far have been settled by package deals. The State of Thuringia is holding elections in September, with campaigning beginning in June. If a settlement is not reached before then, the matter is likely to drag on for many months, if not years.

Last year the Reuss family reached an agreement with the Gera municipality (The Art Newspaper, No.81, May 1998, pp.41-42). Under the complex deal, which was negotiated with help from Christie’s, their art treasures were divided into three parts. The finest works have remained in local museums, primarily the Stadtmuseum and the Kunstgalerie. Other lesser items were handed over to Woizlawa-Feodora Princess Heinrich I for the family. The remaining works were sold by Christie’s in May, raising DM5 million (£1.8 million), and the proceeds were divided between local museums and the Reuss family.

Sotheby’s helped advise over the art treasures of the Speck von Sternberg family. Their collection of 200 paintings (plus prints and drawings), then deposited at Leipzig’s Museum der bildenden Künste, is to remain there. Funds to create a foundation to manage the collection were raised by the sale of a DM4.5 million Cranach altar wing to Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie and a DM20 million Van der Weyden panel of the “Visitation” which was bought for the Leipzig museum. Other benefits went to the Speck von Sternberg family.

The Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach treasures

The most important works of art and archives now being claimed by Princess Leonie are currently exhibited in five main historic sites in Weimar.

o The Stadtschloss (City Castle) (1439, rebuilt 1664 and 1803) contains the finest paintings. It includes more than a dozen paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder (who worked and died in Weimar) and a pair of Dürer portraits of Hans and Felicitas Tücher, as well as works by Baldung, Tintoretto, Rubens, Tischbein and Friedrich. The graphic collection comprises 15,000 drawings and 50,000 prints.

o The Wittumspalais (Widow’s Palace) (1769) houses baroque furniture and paintings, as well as a museum devoted to Christoph Wieland (1733-1813), the humanist philosopher.

o Tiefurt Palace. The summer residence (rebuilt 1775), with fine furnishings.

o Belvedere Palace. The hunting lodge (1732) is now a museum of the Rococo, with eighteenth-century paintings.

o Goethe-Schiller Archive. The building (1896) houses 600,000 literary documents. The two most important holdings are those presented by the families of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Princess Leonie of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach lays claim to $820 million worth of property'