Germany’s museums buy back ‘degenerate’ artworks purged by the Nazis

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When the Folkwang Museum in Essen bought a watercolour by Egon Schiele earlier this year, it was also recovering a part of its history.

The 1911 work, Standing Woman Covering Face With Both Hands, had already been purchased for the Folkwang once, more than a century ago, by the museum’s founder. Karl Ernst Osthaus corresponded regularly with Schiele and had bought 14 watercolours and one painting by the time the artist died in 1918. That amounted to the largest museum collection of Schiele’s works of its time.

But in 1937, Standing Woman was confiscated in the Nazis’ crusade against “degenerate” Modern art. More than 20,000 works were seized from more than 100 museums in an operation orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels. The museums were declared “purified” in 1938 and much of the art was sold abroad to fund armament programmes.

Some of it is still circulating. But German museums have no legal claim to the art seized in the purge. The law of 31 May 1938, under which Goebbels legitimised the spoliation of the museums, has never been repealed and the confiscations are still deemed valid.

So for the museums, recovering missing works means staying alert to art-market opportunities. “Now and again, something surfaces,” says Tobias Burg, the curator of the Folkwang’s drawings, prints and watercolours collection. “You have to be quick. Fewer and fewer of these works are available on the market. Most are in museums.”

The Folkwang forfeited more art than any other German museum—around 1,400 works were seized in total. The confiscations jeopardised the museum’s future after the Second World War and “still hurt” today, Burg says.

Standing Woman was the 25th confiscated work the Folkwang has re-acquired. It first borrowed the watercolour from the private owner for an exhibition examining the museum’s tumultuous history, which ended in January. The purchase, announced in March, was financed through a bequest from an Essen-based couple, Walter and Liselotte Griese, who stipulated that the fund must be used to buy Expressionist art.

Handful of purchases

A handful of purchases by museums of art seized from their 1937 collections are announced each year. Last year, the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf reacquired Lovis Corinth’s 1925 Still Life with Lilac and Anemones, one of the artist’s last works, first bought by the museum’s director soon after it was painted. And in 2021, the Kunsthalle Mannheim bought back an Otto Mueller work, Kneeling Female Nude.

The purchase was aided by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, which, like the Culture Foundation of the German Federal States, often assists with such acquisitions. “Most museums don’t have acquisition budgets,” says Martin Hoernes, the secretary general of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. “We are generous in these cases. We often fund a third of the price but we like the state to contribute, too.”

Sometimes, museums seek to fill holes in their collections of pre-war art with works similar to those confiscated but not identical, Hoernes says. “We also help to fill these gaps,” he says. “German museums lost their modernity through the seizures. Buying back the confiscated art is recovering a piece of their identity.”

East German museums had little opportunity to purchase art on international markets before 1989—so they have had some catching up to do to fill gaps left by the “degenerate” art confiscations. In 2016, Dresden’s State Art Collections bought a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scene in Front of the Hair Salon, confiscated from the City Art Gallery.

The Kunstmuseum Moritzburg in Halle has recovered a 1925 Kandinsky watercolour and, in 2020, repurchased two paintings by Max Liebermann. These survived the “degenerate” art seizures but were sold by the museum in the Nazi era because, as the city official in charge of culture put it: “They are no longer usable for exhibitions because Liebermann is a Jew.”

Not every recovery attempt is successful. Thomas Köllhofer, the curator of prints, drawings and watercolours at the Mannheim Kunsthalle, still regrets a missed Oskar Kokoschka drawing of a nude offered at Christie’s in 2013. After careful preparation to raise money, the Kunsthalle had to drop out when the bidding climbed substantially above the upper estimate. “It hurts when they go to anonymous buyers and we no longer know where they are,” Köllhofer says.

Still, he is optimistic that more confiscated works will resurface for sale—though these will predominantly be on paper. The seized paintings from Mannheim are now mostly in museums or high-profile private collections, he says.

“In many cases we know where they are, but we can’t recover them,” Köllhofer says. “It is painful to see these works in New York or Basel, but it also makes me feel proud of our predecessors when I see the quality of what they bought and the prominent collections where they are now.”

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