Ongoing Nazi loot restitution claims

A look at some of the artworks subject to ongoing international restitution claims


Paul Klee, Sumpflegende [swamp legend], 1919

In 1926, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers lent this famous painting by Klee—along with 15 other Modern works—to the Provinzialmuseum Hannover. In 1937, the work was branded “degenerate” and was confiscated by the Nazis. Hildebrand Gurlitt bought the piece in 1941, and it was eventually acquired by the Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Foundation and the city of Munich, which loaned it to the city’s Lenbachhaus. In 1992, Lissitzky-Küppers’s son, Jens, filed a restitution claim, which was dismissed by the Munich regional court on statute-of-limitations grounds. The Lenbachhaus is not bound by the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted art, which waives the statute-of-limitations defence, because it is a private foundation. Last year, new evidence led to the heirs filing a new claim against the city of Munich.

Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1902

The case of Klimt’s frieze—one of the highlights of Vienna's Secession museum—is not a direct result of Nazi looting, but a consequence. The heirs of Erich Lederer filed a claim in October accusing the Austrian government of extorting the work from Lederer after it was returned to him when the war ended. According to the heirs, the Austrian government would only grant Lederer export licences for his other works if he sold the frieze at a lower rate ($750,000). The claim is now with the Art Restitution Advisory Board, which will make a recommendation to Claudia Schmied, Austria’s minister of culture. She will make the final decision.

Gustav Klimt, Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1917-18

Although an arbitration panel awarded ownership of the work to Austria in 2006, the heirs of Amalie Zuckerkandl and the industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer continue to claim rightful ownership. The work made headlines in October when it went on show in “Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900” at the National Gallery in London. Bloch-Bauer’s lawyer,

E. Randol Schoenberg, called for the gallery to request a new determination by the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board. The director of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, the painting’s home, said in October that the work has a “faultless provenance”.

Henri Matisse, Robe bleu dans un fauteuil ocre [blue dress in an ochre armchair], 1937

The heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a prominent Parisian art dealer, were made aware of this painting by the Art Loss Register in 2012 after it went on show at the Centre Pompidou. The work is thought to have been confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 and came into the possession of Hermann Goering in 1942. It is now owned by the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, a small private museum near Oslo, Norway. Its director has said that the painting was bought in good faith around 60 years ago, giving the centre ownership rights. The dealer’s heirs, one of whom is Anne Sinclair, the former wife of the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, are in the process of trying to recover around 400 items looted by the Nazis, including another work by Matisse: Seated Woman, 1942, which was found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoard.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Leipziger Straße mit elektrischer Straßenbahn [Leipziger street with electric tram], 1914

Considered to be among the greatest works of German Expressionism, this work is part of a series of 11 paintings by Kirchner depicting Berlin street scenes. The work, now in the Folkwang Museum in Essen, was in the collection of the Jewish shoe-factory owner Alfred Hess, who died in 1931. When the Nazis came to power, his widow, Tekla, sent many of the works to Switzerland, but was apparently forced to sell them back to Germany after pressure from the Nazis. A restitution claim by Hess’s heirs was filed in 2006 and is still being negotiated. Another painting from the series—Berliner Straßenszene, 1913—was returned to the heirs in 2006, prompting criticism from art experts who believe the painting was sold because of financial troubles caused by the Depression, not because of the Nazis.

Max Beckmann, Quappi in Blue, 1926

This portrait by Beckmann of his second wife, Mathilde von Kaulbach, was bought by the legendary Jewish dealer Alfred Flechtheim in 1928. Four years later, Flechtheim offered the work to Israel Ber Neumann, but Flechtheim’s heirs believe that no payment was ever made. It is one of 24 paintings by Beckmann for which Flechtheim’s heirs have filed restitution claims. They include The Lion Tamer, which was sold at the German auction house Lempertz for €864,000 in 2011 after Cornelius Gurlitt settled with the heirs.