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She Tracked Nazi-Looted Art. She Quit When No One Returned It.


BERLIN — For three years, Sibylle Ehringhaus, a veteran provenance researcher, worked with the Georg Schäfer Museum in northern Bavaria to examine the ownership history of its 1,000 oil paintings and several thousand drawings, prints and watercolors.

Mr. Schäfer, the industrialist whose collection is displayed there, had bought much of the art in the 1950s in Munich, then a hub for dealers who had had relationships with the Nazis. Among those from whom he purchased works was Adolf Hitler’s personal photographer.

Ms. Ehringhaus’s job was, in part, to determine just how much of the collection had a tainted provenance.

But last year, she said, she began to ask herself why the city of Schweinfurt, which manages the museum, had bothered to hire her.

After she had identified several plundered works, she said, no one seemed to have any plans to return them to the heirs of the original Jewish owners.

Increasingly, she said, she began to feel her work was unwelcome. She was denied access to historical documents vital for her research, she said, and forbidden to contact colleagues at another museum with a research inquiry. So in December she rejected an offer to extend her contract for another year.

“I got the impression they didn’t want me there — they really made things difficult for me,” Ms. Ehringhaus, 60, said at a meeting in a Berlin cafe. “They needed me for appearances. I felt as though I was being used as a fig leaf.”

The owners of the museum collection, a private foundation run by the Schäfer family, said they are aware of restitution claims for some of the works, but believe that it is the German government, not collectors, who are responsible for addressing it. The museum itself has denied trying to hinder Ms. Ehringhaus’s work.

Germany has made progress of late in addressing critics who say it has not done enough to accelerate the return of art looted by the Third Reich. Earlier this year, for example, the Culture Ministry set up an office staffed by an art historian to help heirs seeking Nazi-looted art to navigate the German bureaucracy.

But this case is a bit different. Though the museum occupies a building owned by the state of Bavaria and is run by the city, the art itself is on loan from the private foundation set up by Mr. Schäfer, who made his fortune in roller bearings and died in 1975.

The Georg Schäfer Foundation says the art was bought legally and in good faith and that compensating victims of the Nazis is a state function, to be undertaken by the German government.

The private foundation is not bound by the internationally endorsed 1998 Washington Principles on restitution of art looted by the Nazis, because the guidelines only apply to public collections. Returning art would violate laws that ban foundations from divesting assets, it says.

In a statement, the foundation said “the German federal government as the legal successor of the Third Reich is responsible for compensating for the crimes of the Third Reich.” The statement called for a German restitution law that would include government compensation for private entities that return Nazi-looted art.

The German culture minister, Monika Grütters, has disputed the view that the government alone is responsible for compensating the heirs of victims of Nazi looting. “The historical and moral responsibility to redress Nazi art plunder does not lie solely with the state,” she said in a speech at a conference on the Washington Principles in 2018. “We can and should expect much more engagement by private art collectors and the art trade.”

But there is little she can do about the foundation’s refusal to hand back looted art, according to Walter Schmidt, a spokesman for the minister. “The federal government has no power to act in this concrete case,” he wrote in an email, because the issue is outside its sphere of direct influence.

The heirs of Jewish collectors have laid claim to about 20 works in the museum. Ms. Ehringhaus said she found many of them to be justified but said that under the terms of her contract she could not address specific cases.

One request is for the return of a portrait of Martha Liebermann, painted by her husband, Max Liebermann. The painter, a Jewish Berliner, was chased out of his position as honorary chairman of the Academy of Arts in Berlin after the Nazis seized power in 1933. He created it before his death in 1935.

Liebermann’s daughter Käthe Riezler escaped to the United States with her husband and daughter, but Martha Liebermann never managed to follow. The portrait hung in her Berlin apartment where, after a visit by the police, she committed suicide by taking poison at the age of 85 to avoid being deported to a Nazi death camp.

“The family couldn’t get her out of Germany, and my mother carried this with her for her whole life,” said Katharine Wild, Max and Martha Liebermann’s great-granddaughter. “This kind of family tragedy gets passed along to the children, and I am no exception.”

The portrait of Martha Liebermann is on a Gestapo list of objects seized from her apartment after her death, according to Jutta von Falkenhausen, a lawyer who represents the Liebermann heirs. Georg Schäfer purchased it in 1955 from a Munich dealer. The Liebermann family first tried to recover it more than 10 years ago.

“I am trying to carry on what my mother and sister were doing and continue that work,” Ms. Wild says. “What I would like the people in Schweinfurt to know is: We have an opportunity. We could settle this matter.”

Two other works in the museum are being sought by the heirs of Therese Clara Kirstein, a German Jew who committed suicide in 1939 after her escape to the United States was blocked. The heirs believe the works, a drawing by Adolph Menzel and a Liebermann study, were sold under duress shortly before her death or, more likely, confiscated and sold shortly after.

“We want to have the provenance reports for those two works,” said David Rowland, a New York lawyer representing one of the Kirstein heirs, “and we would like the foundation to apply the Washington Principles. We’ve been asking for that for a long time.”

Lawsuits to recover Nazi-looted art generally fail in Germany because of statutes of limitations and other rules that favor good-faith buyers of stolen items. Claimants trying to recover stolen property are reliant on the good will of the private collectors who possess it. Some private collectors do choose to abide by the Washington Principles. One notable example is the family-owned company Dr. Oetker, a maker of baking product and food products, which has so far given back seven works to the heirs of collectors who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

Like the federal government, the state of Bavaria said it could not simply direct that works be returned. The Bavarian culture minister, Bernd Sibler, said in an email that while the goal of the provenance research is “to give back artworks lost due to persecution or to find fair solutions for compensation,” the state “has no legal means to exert influence over the Georg Schäfer Foundation in terms of implementing the Washington Principles.”

Similarly, the city of Schweinfurt “is only the manager of the museum,” the mayor, Sebastian Remelé, said in a telephone interview. “We are aware that this is a politically sensitive matter but we have no power to act.”

Mr. Remelé said the museum has withdrawn the disputed objects from the exhibition galleries, except for one, which is displayed with detailed information about its provenance. Wolf Eiermann, the director of the museum, rejected Ms. Ehringhaus’s complaint that the museum had prevented her from exchanging information with colleagues, saying he had in just one instance requested her to refrain from contacting a researcher at another museum. “She took part in several symposiums and there was never any kind of ban on her exchanging information with colleagues,” he said.

The city put out a statement in January, after Ms. Ehringhaus left, saying that the provenance research would continue, but only after a digital inventory of the museum’s drawings and prints was completed. Ms. Ehringhaus’s departure was covered by the German press and the mayor seemed to show some fatigue earlier this month when asked to address her view that not enough effort was being made to ensure the works were returned.

The issue of restitution “is not what should be occupying” Ms. Ehringhaus, Mr. Remelé said. “Political moralizing is not her job. Her job was to research the history of the artworks.”

Ms. Ehringhaus, who has done research for the British Museum and the German Historical Museum, among others, said she wishes the foundation, city and state of Bavaria had agreed on a restitution process before she was hired. “There’s no point in having a provenance researcher if this is not resolved,” she said.

“No one wanted any hassle,” she said. “Everyone had an interest in keeping the status quo. No one showed any empathy for the human stories behind these artworks. I kept wondering — ‘do you really want to keep hold of these works belonging to people who were persecuted so horribly and suffered so much?’”

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