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Since 2005, when Germany’s advisory commission on Nazi-looted art made its first determination regarding the restitution of looted cultural property, it has issued between zero and two recommendations each year. The commission recently picked up the pace, issuing two recommendations in February alone. On February 2, the advisory panel concluded that a painting by Erich Heckel in the collection of the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe should be restituted to the heirs of Jewish journalist Max Fischer. Six days later, the panel recommended that a watercolor by Egon Schiele in the collection of Museum Ludwig, Cologne, be restituted to the heirs of Jewish dentist Dr. Heinrich Rieger, who accepted artworks as payment.
Schiele’s delicate 1917 watercolor “Crouching Female Nude” was donated to the city of Cologne in 1966 and has been in the collection of the Museum Ludwig since 1976 when it was transferred from the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. The work previously belonged to Dr. Heinrich Rieger, a Viennese art collector and dentist who accepted art as payment for dental work. Rieger amassed some 800 contemporary artworks, with pieces by Schiele, a patient, forming his collection’s core.
When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Rieger was banned from practicing dentistry, and he and his wife Berta were persecuted. In letters to their son Robert, who fled for New York, Berta wrote of forced sales of their possessions, including art; Aryanization also contributed to the loss of their art collection. In 1942, the pair was deported to the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt, where Heinrich was murdered. Berta was killed at Auschwitz, where she was transferred in 1944.
As with Heckel’s “Siblings,” sections of the provenance of Schiele’s “Crouching Female Nude” remain murky despite extensive archival research; in fact, the commission even gave the city of Cologne three extra months to conduct further research. Walter Geyerhahn, the son of a Jewish merchant, sold the watercolor to an art dealer in 1965, leading to its purchase for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum the next year. However, it is unclear how Geyerhahn acquired the work.
Though the city of Cologne argued that Rieger might have sold the work before the 1938 annexation, there was no evidence to support this hypothesis. In its decision, the panel flagged that it was rare for Rieger to dispense with works by Schiele prior to 1938 (when the collector was operating under duress); Cologne would need to substantiate its claims. Museum Ludwig director Yilmaz Dziewior and Cologne’s head of culture Susanne Laugwitz-Aulbach both expressed support for the recommendation to return the work to Rieger’s heirs. A plan for the restitution will be decided upon at a city council meeting on March 23.
Erich Heckel’s oil painting “Siblings” (1913), the other subject of the commission’s February recommendations, depicts the Die Brücke artist’s frequent model and future wife, the dancer Sidi Riha, with her younger brother. “Siblings” entered the collection of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in 1967, loaned and then donated by Heckel himself. Before coming back into the artist’s possession, the painting belonged to Max Fischer, a Berlin-based correspondent with a doctorate in history.
In 1926, Fischer inherited the painting from his parents Ludwig and Rosy Fischer, prominent art collectors in Frankfurt who built one of the foremost private collections of German Expressionist art between 1905 and 1925. Following the institution of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws in 1935, Fischer fled Germany, leaving behind his possessions, including his art collection, which was ultimately misappropriated by the Nazis. Max Fischer died without children in 1954. His younger brother Ernst escaped to the United States in 1934 with the other half of their parents’ collection intact.
Heckel seems to have come into possession of the painting sometime between 1934 and 1944, under unknown circumstances. The state of Baden-Württemberg, which owns the Kunsthalle, suggested that Heckel may have legitimately purchased the work from Fischer before Fischer fled the country. However, the state located no documentation to this effect, and German restitution guidelines regarding potentially Nazi-looted artworks taken from Jewish collectors after 1933 place the burden of proof on the work’s present owner.
The successful claimants, Ernst Fischer’s children, have promised the work to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, which acquired over 200 works from the Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection through a gift-purchase agreement in 2009. “Siblings,” which will be on view at the museum in June, is the third work from Max Fischer’s collection to be recovered by his heirs and subsequently enter the VMFA’s collection.