By Catherine Hickley
Berlin’s museum authorities settled a claim for a medieval alabaster relief confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish telephone maker in an accord that ensures the artwork will remain on display in the German capital.
The 1440 relief, showing Christ carrying the cross, is one of the most important late medieval portrayals of the Passion, according to a statement from the Prussian Culture Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s museums. Seized by the Nazis in 1943, it was sold at auction without the permission of the owner, Harry Fuld Junior, who had by then emigrated to the U.K. to escape persecution. Fuld’s legal heir is the U.K. branch of the charity Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service.
“Our main goal in this, as in all restitution cases, was to find a fair and just solution with the heirs,” Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Culture Foundation, said in a statement today. “I’m also very happy we can continue to present the alabaster relief to Berlin’s museum visitors.”
Harry Fuld Junior inherited a telephone-making company and an art collection from his father -- also called Harry Fuld -- in 1932. After losing his company under Nazi “Aryanization” laws, Fuld Junior emigrated to Britain in 1936, leaving his art in storage. The Nazis impounded it and the relief was purchased by the Berlin museums at the 1943 auction. Fuld received a small amount of the revenue: Most went into the public purse, the Prussian Culture Foundation said.
When Fuld died in 1963, he left his estate to his housekeeper, Gisela Martin. She, in turn, bequeathed her estate to Magen David Adom in 1992.
“At that stage, the estate didn’t include any art,” said Stuart Glyn, the chairman of Magen David Adom in the U.K. “But now works are beginning to come to light. We don’t even know the full extent of the collection.”
Glyn said Magen David Adom, helped by a firm of Berlin lawyers, has made some progress in recovering works from the collection. Last year, the charity recovered a painting by Henri Matisse from the Pompidou Center in Paris that was at one stage in the hands of Kurt Gerstein, a Waffen SS officer responsible for delivering Zyklon B poison gas to Auschwitz and other camps.
Fuld Senior, whose business was based in Frankfurt, was “a billionaire by the standards of the time,” Glyn said. “He was one of the first people to realize you could make money by renting out telecommunications equipment.”
He was also a “magpie,” Glyn said, collecting “lots of stuff -- some of it good quality, some of it less good.”
The charity is negotiating with one museum for the restitution of a drawing by Paul Klee, Glyn said, without naming the museum. It is also seeking to recover objects as diverse as 12th-century Buddha statues and 16th-century Italian masters.
“If we can get a reasonable price, we would prefer the works to remain in museums,” Glyn said. “But we have an obligation as trustees to get a good price for our beneficiaries.”
Altogether, the Nazis stole about 650,000 artworks, the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference estimates. Germany is one of 46 countries that pledged to boost efforts to return art and other property seized during the Nazi era to Jewish victims and their heirs at a Prague conference in June. The accord, known as the Terezin Declaration, also encompassed “forced sales and sales under duress.”
The Prussian Culture Foundation said it has faced 30 restitution claims dating back to the Nazi era in the past 10 years. The foundation said the full purchase price for the relief was paid by the Ernst von Siemens art foundation, established in 1983 by the grandson of the industrial entrepreneur Werner von Siemens. The Siemens foundation will loan it long-term to the museum.
Neither the Prussian Culture Foundation nor Glyn of Magen David Adom would reveal the sum agreed on for the relief, which is on display in Berlin’s Bode Museum, home to the city’s sculpture collection.