Neue Galerie shows 2nd major work acquired through restitution

PR Inside 27 July 2007
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - A garish painting of Berlin streetwalkers on the prowl, the subject of a bitter restitution case from the Nazi era, went on display at the museum that bought it after frenzied bidding for $38.1 million (£27.7 million).

Worried by the painting's recent journey from Berlin to the Neue Galerie in New York, critics in Germany say ownership of other works held by German museums could now be threatened under an expanded interpretation of what constitutes Nazi-confiscated art.

Berlin Street Scene shows two prostitutes in feathered hats and matching coats of red and blue trying to make eye contact with men on a busy thoroughfare on the eve of World War I.

Until recently, this modernist masterpiece by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had hung in Berlin's Bruecke Museum, acquired in the early 1980s from private German owners.

But last summer, the Berlin government returned it to the London heir of Jewish art collector Alfred Hess, whose widow had sold off the works during the 1930s after the family shoe business was taken over by the Nazis.

Berlin city officials said restitution was an act of historical justice in line with other handovers of art lost by Jewish owners to confiscation, theft or forced sale during the Nazi period and World War II.

But German critics contended that the Hess family's decision to sell the painting in the 1930s resulted from their financial troubles during the Depression - not actions by the Nazis.

The Kirchner painting was returned based on the premise that Hess' widow, Thekla, sold the piece out of necessity due to persecution by the Nazis. The Berlin Senate was not able to prove that she received payment, and decided to return it to Hess' granddaughter, a British citizen.

The expressionist work from 1913-14 is a mesmerizing social commentary on tensions surrounding sexual encounters in Berlin, where brothels were outlawed but streetwalkers tolerated, says a wall text at the Neue Galerie.

A photograph of the artist (1880-1938) shows that the painting is unabashedly biographical. Kirchner placed himself in the scene next to the prostitutes, his cubist face and fancy attire mirroring their portraits.

Berliner Strassenszene, its German title, went on the auction block Nov. 9 at Christie's in New York. In spirited bidding, it was sold to Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for $38.1 million, well above its $25 million pre-sale high estimate, and a record for any Kirchner painting.

"Kirchner is a key artist for the Neue Galerie and this is one of his greatest paintings," Lauder said in a statement. "We are proud to give it a home in New York. "

The painting is the second major work acquired through the restitution process by Lauder's Neue Galerie of early 20th century German and Austrian art. Last summer, Lauder unveiled a sensuous, 1907 portrait of a gold-gowned Viennese lady by Gustav Klimt.
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