Skip To Content
Fast Forward

In precedent-setting case, German city to return painting to heirs of Jewish businessman who was once in concentration camp

BERLIN (JTA) — The city of Dusseldorf has agreed to return an Expressionist painting estimated to be worth $18 million to the heirs of its original Jewish owner this week in a move that could set a precedent for German restitution claims.

Kurt Grawi, a Jewish businessman and art collector, fled Nazi Germany for Chile in 1939 after years of persecution and several weeks of internment in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

According to lawyers for the family, when Grawi fled he was only permitted to take a suitcase and a handful of Reichsmarks. But his painting “The Fox” by the German Expressionism pioneer Franz Marc – the Nazis considered it “degenerate art” – was smuggled out of the country, probably with the help of friends.

Grawi wrote in 1939 that he planned to sell it to cover the cost of his emigration. He did so in New York in 1940; he died four years later. In 1962, the work crossed the ocean again, when the new owner donated it to the Kunstpalast art museum in Dusseldorf.

The Germany Advisory Commission on the return of Nazi-era stolen cultural property typically has not dealt with cases in which an artwork changed hands outside of Germany. But with a two-thirds majority, the commission recommended that the painting be returned to the heirs, saying it didn’t matter that the sale took place outside the Third Reich because Grawi would not have sold his prized possession had he not been persecuted by the Nazis.

On Thursday, the Dusseldorf City Council agreed in a closed session to return the painting to the heirs, with no objections and one abstention: the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.

The decision may set a precedent by which cultural objects sold abroad could be subject to restitution under the Washington Principles, a 1998 agreement with Germany that set standards for determining whether property was looted or sold under duress.

The item need not be spectacular, Markus Stoetzel, a Germany-based attorney for the heirs, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“It is not always a Franz Marc painting,” he said in a telephone interview. “It can be a book or a piece of furniture that has a connection to the past, to what they lost.”

Stoetzel added: “One can only hope that this is encouraging for other parties and countries to come forward.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.