A German Cathedral Has Returned a Scandal-Tainted Painting Once Owned by Hitler’s Secretary to Its Jewish Heirs

After eight years, the heirs of Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus have reclaimed the 17th-century painting.

Jan van der Heyden, View of a Dutch square (1637-1712).
Jan van der Heyden, View of a Dutch square (1637-1712).

After eight years of negotiations, the German city of Xanten has agreed to return the 17th-century painting View of a Dutch Square to the heirs of Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, who fled Vienna in March 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. The painting, attributed to Jan van der Heyden, has a knotty history. It is one of more than 160 works in the Kraus’s collection that were seized by the Nazis and surreptitiously returned to Nazis after the war. It is only the seventh work from the trove to be recovered and returned to the family’s heirs.

Since 1963, the painting has been in the collection of St. Victor’s Cathedral in Xanten, which acquired the work at an auction house in Cologne without knowing it was looted. The chairman of the cathedral’s foundation stressed Xanten was voluntarily surrendering the work “in recognition of the Nazi injustice.”

Before it moved to Xanten, the painting had an even more circuitous and disturbing lineage. In 2016, London’s Commission for Looted Art in Europe made the shocking discovery that hundreds of looted artworks, including View of a Dutch Square, were meant to be returned to Jewish heirs by the Bavarian State after World War II—but instead, they were secretly returned to heirs of the Nazi officers who had looted them.

View of a Dutch Square has a particularly checkered past. During the war, it was given to Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend, Heinrich Hoffmann. After the war ended, the Bavarian State did not attempt to return the work to its original owners’ heirs, as it had promised, but instead sold the painting in 1962 to Hoffmann’s daughter, Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach, who had served as a secretary to Hitler, for a steeply reduced price (roughly $75 at the time).

In a statement, John Graykowski, the great-grandson of Gottlieb and Mathilde, said, “In a real sense, my family has been waiting for this moment for 80 years, when Gottlieb, Mathilde, and Marie Kraus fled Vienna with their lives and little else, and left their beloved art collection to an uncertain fate.”

This is not the only painting from the Kraus’s collection that was sold to Henriette Hoffmann von-Schirach—according to Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem landscape painting was “handed over” to her in 1960. Its whereabouts remain unknown.

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