Two Berlin museums return works to heirs of Jewish collector


(JTA) — Two Berlin museums have returned works to the heirs of a Jewish collector who liquidated them during World War II, according to the Foundation of Prussian Cultural Heritage.

The foundation returned 11 works from the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Skulpturensammlung that had belonged to Margarete Oppenheim, whose family was forced to sell them at a deflated price to the National Socialists in 1936.

Margarete Oppenheim, widow of the chemist and industrialist Franz Oppenheim, died in 1935, six years after her husband. Her collection has been described as one of Germany’s largest and most valuable, containing works by Impressionists and small sculptures, as well as of porcelain, majolica, faience and silver work.

The state arranged for the return of the works in keeping with the 20-year-old Washington Declaration signed by 44 countries committing themselves to seeking long-lost artwork that ended up in museums and other public collections. Germany was among the signers.

Five of the 11 works returned to the Oppenheim heirs were repurchased by the museums — two paintings on Christian religious themes from the 16th-century Donau School, and three 18th-century porcelain objects produced by the Meissen and Frankenthal firms.

The foundation has overseen the return of some 350 works of art and more than 1,000 books to the heirs of persecuted Jews.

Its president, Hermann Parzinger, said in a statement that he was grateful to the heirs for their role in coming to a “fair and just solution,” and added that the foundation remained dedicated to researching the provenance of works in Berlin museums.

Imke Gielen, spokeswoman for the law firm of Rowland & Associates, said the heirs appreciated the foundation’s procedure for return of the works, as well as the “tireless efforts of the foundation” to uncover the history of the works in its collection.

According to the foundation, Margarete Oppenheim had ordered the executors of her estate to auction her works after her death “at the most appropriate moment” and reinvest the funds in her estate. But because the auction took place in May 1936, at a time when Jews were being persecuted and pressured to divest of their property at greatly deflated value, the auction is considered to have been forced and thus illegitimate, according to the Washington Declaration.

Provenance researchers have found two additional objects that Margarete Oppenheim had lent to the museums personally and were never returned.

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