Bloomberg News

Munch, Kirchner Artworks Return to Jewish Collector’s Heirs

November 30, 2012

Kirchner Woodcut

A woodcut by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner called "Peasants Chatting" will be returned to Glaser's heirs by Berlin's Kupferstichkabinett. Glaser's heirs are seeking restitution of hundreds of works that the art historian sold in a Berlin auction before he fled to the U.S. via Switzerland and Cuba. Source: Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz via Bloomberg

A Berlin museum will return three graphics by Edvard Munch and one by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the heirs of a collector who escaped Nazi persecution by fleeing to the U.S., according to museum officials and the heirs’ lawyers.

Curt Glaser was director of Berlin’s Art Library and an art critic who counted Munch among his friends. Persecuted for his Jewish origins by the Nazis, he was suspended from his job and evicted from his apartment in April 1933. He auctioned most of his collection in May and left Germany in July that year.

Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett acquired six Munch drawings in Glaser’s auction. Another five graphic works by Kirchner were donated to the museum shortly after the auction, of which three are still in the Kupferstichkabinett’s collection. Five works will stay in the Berlin museum with the heirs’ approval, said David Rowland of Rowland & Petroff in New York, their lawyer.

“The heirs are extremely pleased that they were able to reach a fair and just solution,” Rowland said by telephone. The agreement to leave some works in the Kupferstichkabinett “acknowledges the importance of Glaser’s work in Berlin.”

Munch is today one of the most valuable artists at auction. One of four versions of his masterpiece “The Scream,” a pastel on board, sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York in May. Glaser’s collection comprised more than 100 graphics by Munch as well as works by other modernist figures including Kirchner, Max Beckmann and Oskar Kokoschka, Old Master paintings and a collection of Japanese graphics.

Friend, Patron

“As a friend and patron of the famous Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, Glaser laid the foundation-stone for one of the biggest and most significant collections of Munch’s graphics in the Kupferstichkabinett,” the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the organization that oversees Berlin’s museums, said in a statement sent by e-mail.

The three Munch works that will be returned to the Glaser heirs under this agreement are a mezzotint called “Young Girl by the Sea,” a woodcut titled “Prayer of an Old Man” and an etching, “Death and the Woman,” according to the statement. The Kirchner work is a woodcut called “Peasants Chatting.”

Glaser was a leading figure in the Berlin art world of the Weimar Republic. A qualified doctor, he converted to Protestantism in 1914. His home was a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. When he fled the country with his second wife in 1933, he traveled first to Switzerland, and from there to Italy and Cuba before reaching the U.S., where he died in 1943. His heirs are the relatives of his wife, Marie Milch.

Duress Sales

The fate of their claims highlights diverging responses to art sales made under duress in the Nazi era. Under postwar laws for Germany crafted by the western allies, any art sales by Jews after 1935 are presumed to have been under duress and are deemed invalid.

Claims for artworks sold before 1935 are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Glaser’s heirs have recovered works that he sold in the Berlin auctions from the Netherlands, and from the German cities of Berlin and Hanover.

The Dutch Restitutions Committee in 2010 recommended the return to Glaser’s heirs of a painting by Jan van de Velde II titled “Winter Landscape.” The committee said Dutch guidelines consider all sales by private owners in Germany from 1933 onwards involuntary unless proven otherwise.

Yet the U.K. Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2009 rejected the heirs’ claim for eight drawings held by London’s Samuel Courtauld Trust auctioned under the same conditions. While conceding that Glaser sold his collection at least in part due to Nazi persecution, the panel said he was also keen to make a fresh start after the death of his first wife, and received fair prices for his artworks in a depressed market.

In 2008, the Swiss city of Basel also rejected the Glaser heirs’ claim for more than 100 artworks by artists including Munch, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse.

“We hope the Berlin decision serves as a signal to other museums which have other Glaser works and encourages them to reach a similarly fair and just solution,” Rowland said.

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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