’26 Years Is Too Long!’: Settlement Finally Reached in Battle Over Paul Klee From Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ Show
The case is Germany's longest-running legal battle over Nazi-looted art.
It took 26 years, but the legal battle over the ownership of Paul Klee’s Swamp Legend (1919), seized by Nazis as “degenerate” art in the 1930s, has reached a settlement. The city of Munich, where the work is on view at the Lenbachhaus museum, will keep the painting, but the heirs of the original owner will be reimbursed for the value of the masterpiece, estimated between €2–4 million ($2.33–4.65 million).
“We are are satisfied that we now found an agreement, but the whole case and the need to start a litigation was frustrating,” lawyer Gunnar Schnabel, who represents the heirs of art historian Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers, told artnet News. “One of the grandchildren died two years ago. During the whole time, our clients are dying. Twenty-six years is too long!”
Matthias Mühling, the director of the Lenbachhaus, took a more positive view, characterizing the settlement as a sign of progress in comments to the New York Times. “Through the story of this painting over the last 26 years, we can trace the change of mentality not just in the museums, but also in the legal approach, the way we think about law and justice,” he said. “This settlement is a very important achievement for our museum.”
The painting, created in 1919, originally belonged to Lissitzky-Küppers and her first husband, Paul Küppers. He died in 1922, and in 1926 Lissitzky-Küppers moved to the Soviet Union to marry her second husband, Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky.
Her art collection, which comprised some 20 paintings and one sculpture, with works by Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Fernand Léger, stayed behind, on loan to the Hanover Provinzialmuseum. With the Nazis’ rise to power, Swamp Legend was targeted as degenerate art and seized along with 20,000 other works in German museums.
Featured in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich in 1937, Swamp Legend was then purchased by notorious Nazi collaborator and art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. (His massive, partially looted collection was discovered at the home of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, in 2012.) Records indicate the canvas was sold three times between 1962 and 1982 when it was purchased by the city of Munich and the Gabriele Münter Foundation.
Lissitzky-Küppers was unsuccessful in her efforts to recover her collection, and died in poverty in 1978, having been banished to Siberia because she was German. Her children took up the cause in 1992, but lost their case against the museum the following year, on the grounds that the city purchased the work in good faith and did not know of its tainted provenance.
Germany signed the Washington Principles in 1998, an international agreement regarding the restitution of Nazi-looted art, but Munich claimed it only applied to art stolen from Jewish families, not art taken because of its “degenerate” qualities. (There is some question over whether countries are doing enough to resolve restitution cases.) The city also refused to have the dispute heard by the Limbach Commission, a government panel that resolves Nazi restitution cases.
The settlement was finally reached, Schnabel believes, because his legal team unearthed Nazi paperwork indicating that “degenerate” art seized from foreign owners was supposed to be returned. “When she married El Lissitzky in 1927, she became a Russian citizen,” explained Schnabel. “The Nazis themselves said we have to give back foreign property.”
Though the Klee battle is behind them, the Lissitzky-Küppers family is still working to track down the rest of the collection. Schnabel expects to have reached a resolution in the case of another painting by the end of next month. “We found another masterpiece in a Swiss art collection, a famous private collection,” he said, declining to name the work but noting that it was part of the “Abstract Cabinet” Lissitzky curated for Landes Museum in Hanover in 1927, which was destroyed by Nazis.
“It took us decades to find all the details,” Schnabel added, noting that he has spent 20 years researching provenances on behalf of the family. “That’s not what the Washington Principles said. They said the museums have to do that research.”
Under the terms of the current settlement, the painting will now include the full details of Lissitzky-Küppers’s ownership in all display labels and catalogues. That, said Schnabel, “was very important for the heirs.”
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