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Around the Jewish World: Artwork Taken by Nazis Returned, Opening the Door to Further Claims

When German authorities hand over a $5 million sketch by Van Gogh to Gerta Silberberg in the next few weeks, a small fragment of a destroyed world will be returned.

The 85-year-old widow greeted with mixed emotions last Friday’s news that the umbrella body representing most of Germany’s museums, the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage, had approved the return of Van Gogh’s “L’Olivette,” which has been hanging in Berlin’s National Gallery since 1935.

“The whole issue brings back many disturbing issues for me,” she said at her home in the British city of Leicester. “I wish to continue to live modestly and quietly for my remaining years.”

The return of this work and another owned by Silberberg’s father-in-law before the Nazi era — as well as decision by the German foundation to give its president the power to negotiate directly with prewar owners or their heirs to avoid lengthy litigation — is expected to open the way to claims by other owners and their heirs to thousands of artworks worth billions of dollars in museums, galleries and private collections throughout the world.

“No one knows how big this problem is, but we suspect it is huge,” said Constance Lowenthal, the director of the Commission for Art Recovery, a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress.

Since the death of Gerta Silberberg’s husband, Arthur, in 1984, she has been the sole surviving relative of Max Silberberg, her father-in-law.

Max Silberberg was a wealthy industrialist in Breslau, now Wroclaw, Poland, and co-owned M. Weissenberg, a company that produced magnesite, a key ingredient in making steel.

He used his great wealth to amass a fabulous, 143-piece collection of Impressionist art, which was considered one of the finest private collections in Europe.

Works from his collection, featured prominently in German art magazines during the 1920s, included paintings and sketches by Cezanne, Renoir, Delacroix, Degas, Matisse and Pissarro.

At today’s values, it is estimated that the collection would be worth some $35 million.

Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933, however, Silberberg’s world imploded: the Nazis “Aryanized” the magnesite industry and Silberberg was suddenly forced out of his job and stripped of his assets.

By 1934, it was clear that he would have to sell his fabulous collection of art at one of the many “Jew Auctions” organized by the Nazi Chamber of Culture throughout Germany between 1933 and 1938.

These sales were designed to force Jews in Silberberg’s predicament to sell their collections at a fraction of their real values.

“When everything else was taken from them, they could not eat their paintings,” noted one researcher.

Details about the auctions have trickled in only in recent years as records have been declassified.

One reason for the lack of information is that many of the works that were sold at these forced auctions were later plundered by the invading Soviet Red Army, surfacing decades later in collections in the former Soviet bloc.

There is special sensitivity in Germany about the subject of the auctions.

Not only do revelations of the sales again highlight Germany’s cruelty toward its Jewish citizens even before the outbreak of war, they also underscore the extent to which many German citizens must have been aware of — and collaborated in — the process of dehumanizing their Jewish fellow-citizens.

German law finally acknowledged in 1989 that it considered artworks sold at these auctions to be looted property.

The Silberberg collection was, in fact, disposed of at four different such auctions, but the choicest pieces –50 works — were auctioned by Paul Graupe, himself a Jew.

Graupe’s position derived both from his knowledge of art and from his close business association with the Swiss-based Hans Wendland, who was, in turn, close to the art buyers for both Hermann Goering and Hitler himself.

As the war clouds darkened, fates were sealed: Gerta and Alfred Silberberg fled to Britain in 1937 and Graupe found a safe haven in the United States. Max Silberberg, unable to leave, was arrested and transported to a concentration camp, where he died.

Last week’s decision came after Greta Silberberg had almost abandoned hope of ever recovering any of the artworks that had belonged to her late father-in- law.

But her hopes were revived with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discovery of an archive from the former East Germany that documented the fate of collections sold at the auctions.

Gerta instructed a Berlin attorney to hire a team of art historians to comb the newly available information. They soon struck paydirt. Not only did they find the Van Gogh, but they also found another picture from Silberberg collection in the museum — “Man With Yellow Coat,” by the 19th-century German painter Hans von Marees.

Other paintings in the Silberberg collection are being tracked down, and legal action for their recovery is now expected to proceed — even though the deadlines for such claims have passed.

“The expiration of legally set deadlines cannot be a reason that injustices are not set right,” said the president of the German foundation, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, who is understood to have personally informed Gerta Silberberg of his decision.

Wolfgang Kahlke, spokesman for the foundation, said he hopes the return of the pictures from the Berlin museum would spark further claims.

Anne Webber, the co-chairwoman of the European Commission on Looted Art, described the German move as a “landmark” decision.

“The Nazis carried out the greatest art robbery in history,” she said. “They stole one-fifth of all the art in Europe, and much of it is now kept in galleries or private collections.”

A spokesman for London-based Holocaust Educational Trust called the move a “turning point in the restitution procedure,” adding that “museums and galleries around the world must follow this example.”

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