Heirs of persecuted dealer Alfred Flechtheim reject provenance project over restitution claims

The Jewish dealer’s relatives say participating museums are not dealing satisfactorily with their claims



The heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, the Jewish Modern art dealer and collector, have cast a shadow over a major provenance research project launched by 15 German museums last month. Michael Hulton, the great-nephew of the 1920s dealer, turned down an invitation to speak at the inauguration of the project last month because, he says, some participating museums are not dealing to his satisfaction with his restitution claims.

Flechtheim was one of Germany’s foremost dealers of avant-garde art, representing artists such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz and Paul Klee. He opened his first gallery in Düsseldorf in 1913, followed by others in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna.

But his persecution by the Nazis forced him to emigrate, leaving much of his collection behind. “Alfred Flechtheim.com: Art Dealer of the Avant-Garde” seeks to investigate the history of works once owned by the dealer through an online exhibition and a database. The website (www.alfredflechtheim.com) went live on 9 October. The 15 museums involved in the initiative, including the Kunstmuseum Bonn, the Bavarian State Art Collections and the Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, are also exhibiting works from their collection with the Flechtheim provenance (until early 2014).

Hulton has publicly attacked the initiative. “[The organisers] invited me to lend my support, which I thought was kind of odd, considering they have closed the case on us. They unilaterally dismissed the claim we made in 2008, saying that there’s no point in discussing it any more, which is absurd,” he says. “Now, they can hardly expect me to sit on the panel and be nice. In fact, people would be shocked if I did that.” Instead, Hulton organised his own press conference in Düsseldorf, at the same time and only a short distance away, and set up an opposing website (www.alfredflechtheim.org).

Flechtheim’s heirs, including Hulton, are seeking restitution for a number of works in German museums. Some claims have been successful: last year, the Kunstmuseum Bonn settled over a painting by Paul Adolf Seehaus. Other museums, such as the Bavarian State Art Museums in Munich and the Kunstsammlung in Düsseldorf, have been less co-operative, Hulton says. “They are playing the waiting game, which many museums do, in the hope that we go away or die.” The heirs are hoping for the return of six paintings by Beckmann from Munich and for the return of works by Klee and Juan Gris from Düsseldorf.

Andrea Bambi, a provenance researcher at the Pinakothek Museums in Munich and the driving force behind the project, is disappointed by Hulton’s criticism. “This [situation] has left a dark cloud over transparency and research,” Bambi says. “We have finally managed to get a large number of museums to be transparent about provenance, which is something that the press, among others, has always called for, but now it’s not right.”

Nonetheless, the website attracted around 60,000 hits within the first two weeks of going live, with some visitors from countries such as Russia. Bambi hopes this means that works with the Flechtheim provenance might come to light in the country and that its museums will want to collaborate on the project. “The more information we can get about the paintings, the more we will find out about Alfred Flechtheim,” she says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Heirs reject provenance project'