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Following a closed-session vote by the Dusseldorf City Council, a 1913 painting by Franz Marc will be returned to the heirs of Kurt Grawi, a Jewish entrepreneur and banker who was persecuted by the Nazis. “Die Füchse (Foxes),” which entered the city’s art collection in 1962 and had pride of place at the Dusseldorf Kunstpalast, has been the subject of dispute for six years. The long-awaited ruling has significant implications: because the painting was sold in New York to fund Grawi’s flight from Nazi Germany, the decision to restitute the work may set a precedent for future claims regarding cultural objects sold under duress beyond Europe’s borders.
Franz Marc, who co-founded Der Blaue Reiter with Wassily Kandinsky in 1911, often painted animals as symbols of his pantheistic worldview. In his 1913 painting, two foxes slyly materialize in a vibrant, kaleidoscopic cubist composition. Marc would die not long after painting the work, killed in battle at the age of 36. Grawi, a successful businessman based in Berlin, purchased “Foxes” in 1928.
In 1931, he began to suffer under the Nazis. His businesses and properties were dissolved or Aryanized in 1935, and three years later he was interred at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for several weeks.
When he fled to Chile via Belgium in 1939 — his family, including his non-Jewish wife, would follow later that year — Grawi was only allowed to take 10 Reichsmarks with him. He had “Foxes” smuggled out of Germany with the express intention of selling it in New York to fund his escape, writing in a letter that “the result of the sale will provide the basis for our emigration.”
An intermediary for Grawi approached MoMA with “Foxes,” explaining bluntly in a letter that “the owner of this painting is a German refugee who is trying to obtain some cash which he is in dire need.” But the museum only offered $800, a paltry sum compared to the $3,000 that Grawi originally paid for the work. Ultimately, the work was sold to the German-American actor couple William Dieterle and Charlotte Hagenbruch for an unknown price in 1940. In 1961, the painting was acquired by the German entrepreneur Helmut Horten, who donated it to the city of Dusseldorf’s art collection the following year. “Foxes” became one of the prize works of the Kunstpalast, and today is valued at €15 million to €30 million (~$18 million to $36 million).
Grawi died from cancer in Chile in 1944. In response to his heirs’ claims to the painting, the city of Dusseldorf argued that there was no evidence that Grawi didn’t receive a fair purchase price from the 1940 sale in New York. Hence, the sale was not necessarily the result of Nazi persecution. However, the claimants contended that Grawi sold the painting out of necessity to fund his family’s flight from Nazi Germany — an assertion supported both by letters and by the fact that Grawi had sold most of his art collection at a forced auction in 1937, but held onto “Foxes.”
In late March, Germany’s advisory commission on Nazi-looted art — which, since 2005, has typically issued between zero and two recommendations per year — issued its third recommendation of 2021: although the painting was sold “outside of the National Socialist sphere of influence,” the work should be returned. (There were three dissenters on the commission.) In a statement, the commission said: “The sale in 1940 in New York was the direct consequence of imprisonment in a concentration camp and subsequent emigration, and was so closely connected with National Socialist persecution that the location of the event becomes secondary in comparison.”
In a unanimous vote on April 29, the city of Dusseldorf upheld the commission’s recommendation and agreed to restitute the painting, acknowledging a newly expanded notion of what might constitute a sale made under duress to the point of meriting restitution under the 1998 Washington Principles.