(JTA) — With all the recent news in Germany about the search for heirs to art taken during the Nazi era, a recent announcement about a 300-year-old violin caught my eye.
A Nuremberg-based foundation for music students was hoping to find descendants of Felix Hildesheimer of Speyer — a musical instrument dealer who bought the violin in 1938 and took his own life the following year, when he was unable to follow his wife and daughters to safety abroad.
At present, the violin — made in 1706 by Italian master craftsman Giuseppe Guarneri — belongs to the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, having been purchased in 1974 by the late Nuremberg virtuoso Sophie Hagemann.
But to find potential heirs, it turns out it helps to look for them. Which I did. Within three days of my first inquiry, I managed to reach the grandson of Hildesheimer in the United States and put him in touch with the foundation. There was delight and gratitude all around.
I wondered why the foundation failed to find the relatives themselves. It was almost embarrassingly easy. All it took was a little Internet research and a few emails.
Foundation board member Fabian Kern told me that it was obviously easier for an American and a journalist to figure things out.
The foundation and family are now planning to discuss what should be done with the instrument.
Kern said the foundation would like to restore it and turn it into a “Violin of Reconciliation,” to be used by students at the Nuremberg Conservatory with the caveat that they learn the story of the Hildesheimer family.
All the foundation knew at first was that Hildesheimer had bought the instrument in 1938. The foundation later found out he had bought it from a known Nazi dealer, Fridolin Hammer. So far no one knows how Hammer got it himself — and no one knows what happened after Hildesheimer bought it.
It’s always possible that descendants of other past owners could come forward. But for now, Kern told me he’s pleased to have found descendants of Hildesheimer.