Sweden’s museum of modern art is facing its first claim for Nazi-era displaced art: an Emil Nolde painting that went missing when a Frankfurt businessman tried to ship his artworks from Germany in 1939. The government recently decided that the Moderna Museet in Stockholm must resolve the claim for the painting it bought 40 years ago.
“No decision has so far been made after the Moderna Museet was assigned to negotiate a just and fair settlement with the heirs of Otto Nathan Deutsch,” stated Jan Widlund, a Stockholm lawyer who represents the museum, on July 6.
Deutsch fled Frankfurt after Nazi persecution cost him his business and threatened his life. He packed up his family’s household goods and artworks and instructed a German company to ship them to Amsterdam, where he was living in 1939. They never arrived in the Netherlands, where Deutsch died before the end of World War II.
After the war, the moving company told Deutsch’s surviving family members that the Deutsch goods were destroyed in bombing raids. The heirs later received some compensation, under West German laws, for their losses, including the 1917 Nolde painting, “Blumengarten (Utenwarf)” (1917), according to Deutsch family lawyer David J. Rowland of New York. He declined to provide any details about the Deutsch heirs.
The Nolde surfaced in Stuttgart some 25 years after Deutsch fled Frankfurt. It then “was purchased in good faith by Moderna Museet in 1967 from a well-renowned auction house in Lugano, Switzerland,” the Stockholm museum said in a statement.
The Deutsch heirs located the Nolde in Sweden in 2003 and asked that it be returned. This is the first claim for a Nazi-era loss concerning an object in the Moderna Museet since the institution was founded in 1958. “Blumengarten ( Utenwarf )” is one of 35 artworks by Nolde, a German Expressionist painter, in the museum’s collection, spokeswoman Lovisa Lönnebo said. The current value of the Nolde is unknown.
Sweden was the host, in 2000, of the third international conference on Holocaust-era issues. At the second conference, held in Washington in 1998, delegations from 44 nations adopted the so-called Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. These are nonbinding protocols, a set of moral pledges, regarding the identification and restitution of looted artworks. The principles encourage prewar owners and heirs to make their claims known. If artworks and heirs are located, the principles say that “steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.”
The Moderna Museet is not permitted to make independent decisions about de-accessioning; it must defer to the government. Last month, however, Sweden referred the claim to the museum. “The government hereby assigns to Moderna Museet to resolve the dispute concerning the painting ‘Blumengarten’ by Emil Nolde, in accordance with the Washington Conference, and to come to a settlement with the heirs of Otto Nathan Deutsch,” the government said in a statement.
Since 1998, a few nations have crafted laws, policies or commissions to handle restitution claims. Sweden, like most of the countries participating in the Washington Conference, has not. It was not clear what the government intended when it referred to a “settlement,” or when the museum would make a decision regarding the Deutsch claim.
If the museum decides to return the painting to the Deutsch heirs, it may have a claim against the gallery from which it bought the Nolde. It is rare, but not unprecedented, for a museum to sue a dealer after a Nazi victim’s heir makes a successful restitution claim.
The museum bought the Nolde from the Ketterer Galerie in Lugano. It is not known how or from whom the Ketterer obtained the painting, Rowland said. Ketterer is still in business and did not respond to a request for comment.
The existence of the Nolde makes it clear that not all, and possibly none, of the Deutsch goods were destroyed in bombing raids during the war. The Deutsch heirs are now seeking more than a dozen paintings that were packed in Frankfurt but never arrived in Amsterdam.
Marilyn Henry is the author of “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006).