German panel urges restitution of a Heckel painting to the heirs of a Jewish journalist persecuted by the Nazis

Erich Heckel, siblings (1913)
© VG Bildkunst

The German Advisory Commission on Art Looted by the Nazis has decided to return a painting by the expressionist artist Erich Heckel in the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle to the heirs of Max Fischer, a Jewish journalist who left his property in Berlin when he fled to the USA of persecution.

The painting Geschwister from 1913 shows Heckel’s wife, a dancer named Siddi, with her younger brother. Max Fischer inherited it from his mother Rosy Fischer, who together with his father Ludwig Fischer put together one of the most important private collections of Expressionist art in pre-war Germany.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, Max Fischer lost his contracts with German newspapers and was expelled from the Berlin press association. His income fell. He escaped in November 1935, took little luggage and left his belongings in an apartment in Berlin. His German citizenship was revoked in 1941 and his property was confiscated by the Third Reich.

Sometime between 1934 and 1944 – under unknown circumstances – the painting came into the artist’s possession. Heckel later loaned it and then donated it to the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe.

The state of Baden-Württemberg, as the owner of the Kunsthalle, argued that Fischer may have sold the painting to Heckel before fleeing and may have received a fair payment to which he would have had access until his account was frozen in 1936.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Sand Hill in Grünau (1913)

The commission decided, however, that “the argument that a legal transaction with reasonable conditions between Max Fischer and Erich Heckel is the only conceivable circumstance is not convincing”. The commission considered it just as likely that the painting had been sold by a third party who somehow came into possession of the work after Fischer’s escape.

The advisory committee cited German guidelines, according to which the current owner must prove that works of art that a Jewish collector lost after 1933 were sold at a fair price and that the seller could freely dispose of the proceeds. “In this case, neither a legal transaction nor a transfer of ownership to Erich Heckel has been proven,” said the commission.

Max died childless in 1954 and his younger brother Ernst inherited his estate. The current heirs are Ernst’s children. You have pledged to donate siblings to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which houses the rest of Ludwig and Rosy Fischer’s collection – including a 1913 painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner entitled Sand Hills in Grünau, the Was refunded by MoMA in 2015.

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