November 30, 2023

BERLIN – A decade-long dispute over a portrait of Max Liebermann’s wife, which the German Impressionist painted himself and confiscated from her apartment here by the Nazis in 1943, was settled with a financial payment to the artist’s heirs.

In a joint declaration with the heirs, the Georg Schäfer Foundation, which owns the portrait from 1930 and two other works from Liebermann’s collection, announced that an anonymous private donor had agreed to grant the heirs an undisclosed amount as compensation for the three works counting.

The comparison aims to “treat historical facts truthfully and with dignity” and “resolve the dilemma between applicable law on the one hand and moral claims and justice on the other,” the statement said. It is agreed that the provenance of the works will be clearly presented in the Georg Schäfer Museum in Schweinfurt in northern Bavaria, which houses the Foundation’s collection.

Max Liebermann, a Jewish Berliner, was removed from his position as honorary chairman of the Academy of Arts in Berlin after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Five years before his death in 1935, he painted the portrait of his wife Martha.

His daughter fled to the United States with her husband and daughter, but Martha Liebermann never managed to escape from Nazi Germany. The portrait hung in her Berlin apartment, where she committed suicide at the age of 85 after a visit by the police by using poison to avoid deportation to a death camp. According to the heir lawyer Jutta von Falkenhausen, the painting is on a Gestapo list of objects that were confiscated from her apartment after her death.

Falkenhausen said the heirs assume that the two other works contained in the settlement – a drawing by Liebermann from 1909 entitled “Bathing Boys” and a drawing by Adolph Menzel from 1852 “The twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple “- Nazi persecution has also been lost, although its origin is less well documented.

The portrait of Martha Liebermann, which was removed from the exhibition during the dispute, can now be seen again in the Georg Schäfer Museum and shares a room with a self-portrait of her husband, said Frank Schuck, lawyer for the foundation.

Georg Schäfer, an industrialist, made his fortune with roller bearings and died in 1975. He bought a large part of the art from the Foundation’s collection in the 1950s in Munich, at that time a hub for Nazi dealers. The heirs of Jewish collectors lay claim to around 20 works in the collection.

In the past, the Foundation has repeatedly denied such claims. She argued that as a private body it was not bound by the internationally recognized Washington Principles of 1998, which called for “just and fair” solutions to art plundered by the Nazis. She also sees it as the task of the German government and not as a private collector to compensate the victims of Nazi expropriation for art that was bought legally and in good faith.

An experienced researcher hired to investigate the history of ownership of paintings from the Foundation’s collection declined to extend her contract in 2019 Art.

“That is a huge step forward,” said the researcher Sibylle Ehringhaus on Thursday of the Liebermann settlement. “There were actually no more serious arguments against an agreement with the heirs.”

Schuck said the donor who paid the severance payment to the heirs was “someone who had an interest in helping the foundation and removing the stigma” associated with their collection.

“It was important to the foundation that the portrait remains in the collection,” says Schuck. According to Falkenhausen, the amount that was paid to the heirs – Liebermann’s two great-grandchildren – was based on an estimate of the market value of the works.

The foundation’s other claimants for restitution include the heirs of the German Jew Therese Clara Kirstein, who committed suicide in 1939. The heirs believe that a drawing by Menzel and a Liebermann study, once owned by Kirstein, were sold under duress shortly before her death or, more likely, confiscated and sold shortly afterwards.

“This case could pave the way for others to find solutions,” said Schuck. “Let’s wait and see.”