Japan returns looted Paul Klee watercolour

A Kyoto museum has accepted “symbolic” payment for restituting a work of art


In the first case of its kind, a Japanese museum has acknowledged the rightful ownership of a work of art confiscated by the Nazis. Masayuki Murata, director of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, returned a 1921 watercolour by Paul Klee, “Deserted square of an exotic town”, to Jen Lissitzky.

The work had belonged to Mr Lissitzky’s mother, Sophie Küppers-Lissitzky, who loaned 13 works to the Provinzial Museum in Hanover in 1926 before leaving Germany for Russia, where she married Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky. The Küppers-Lissitzky Collection was seized by the Nazis in 1937 during the “degenerate art” campaign and sold abroad. Paris-based German art historian Clemens Toussaint has spent a decade pursuing works from the Küppers-Lissitzky Collection on behalf of Mr Lissitzky. “Locating this watercolour was a slow process. It took us ten years. We knew that the picture had been sold in 1990 by Kornfeld in Berne for $450,000, but both Kornfeld and the Paul Klee Foundation, were unwilling to reveal the identity of the buyer.” It was only when the foundation published the 1919-22 volume of the catalogue raisonné Paul Klee at the end of last year, that Toussaint was able to establish that the painting had in fact gone to Japan.

The catalogue revealed that the watercolour had been sold in 1990 to the now bankrupt Gallery Umeda in Osaka. A few discreet inquiries revealed that after its bankruptcy, part of the gallery’s stock, including the missing Klee, had been bought by Gallery Nichido in Tokyo. From there the trail led to Mr Murata. Mr Toussaint held out little hope of the painting being returned. “We knew that the law in Japan doesn’t place any obligation on the owner of a stolen painting to return it to its rightful owner, but when we met Mr Murata, he had a very proper attitude and offered to return the picture to Mr Lissitzky. He loved the history of the painting and the fate of the people involved.”

Mr Murata, formerly a successful electronics manufacturer, retired in 1998 to pursue his long-held ambition to open a museum dedicated to traditional Japanese handicrafts. The museum opened in Kyoto last September.

Mr Murata received a “symbolic” payment for returning the picture. “It was a miracle really,” says Mr Toussaint. “After ten years of searching, discussions and lawyers, once we had found the Japanese link it only took ten days.” Outstanding claims relating to the Küppers-Lissitzky Collection remain unresolved. One painting, by Louis Marcoussis, was returned in January of last year by a museum in Cologne, but discussions with a municipal museum in Munich for the return of another Klee and also with the Beyeler Foundation in Basle for the return of a Kandinsky, are ongoing.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Japan returns Paul Klee watercolour'