Nazi-Seized Klee Painting’s Heirs Start $2.7 Million Court Case

Bloomberg 27 March 2012
By Catherine Hickley

The heirs of a German art historian who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927 filed a legal claim against the city of Munich for a Paul Klee painting that they say was stolen from their grandmother by the Nazis.

The painting, “Sumpflegende” (Swamp Legend), is housed in Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum. Three grandchildren of Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers filed suit for its return at the Bavarian regional court after offers to negotiate were rebuffed. The suit, dated March 23, puts the painting’s value at 2 million euros ($2.7 million.)

Sumpflegende" (Swamp Legend) by Paul Klee. The work was seized by the Nazis in 1937. The picture, which now hangs in Munich's Lenbachhaus, is claimed by the heirs of its prewar owner, a German art historian who emigrated to the Soviet Union. Source: Monika Tatzkow via Bloomberg

Lissitzky-Kueppers inherited “Sumpflegende” in 1922 and loaned it to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum in 1926, before she left Germany. The painting was seized from the museum in 1937 under the orders of Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels for the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich.

Munich has “rejected returning the Klee painting with constantly changing reasons since 1992,” Christoph von Berg of Von Berg Bandekow Zorn, the Leipzig law firm representing the heirs, said in a statement sent to Bloomberg News by e-mail. “All attempts by the heirs to reach an agreement have been brusquely brushed aside.”

The Nazis seized thousands of modern works, seeking to purge German museums of art they saw as contrary to Aryan ideals. An online database compiled by Berlin’s Free University aims to document as many as 21,000 confiscated “degenerate” works by artists including Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky and Klee.

In the degenerate art show, “Sumpflegende” was mocked as the “confusion” and “disorder” of a “mentally ill person.”

Rejecting Panel

In September 2010, Munich Mayor Christian Ude rejected an approach from a government commission headed by former Constitutional Court judge Jutta Limbach, offering to mediate in the dispute with the Lissitzky-Kueppers heirs.

The panel was set up by Culture Minister Bernd Neumann in 2003 to make recommendations on disputed artworks lost by their owners in the Nazi era and now in public collections. The panel can only propose solutions if both sides of a dispute allow.

The basis for the panel’s recommendations is an international accord known as the Washington Principles, endorsed by 44 countries in 1998. Under those non-binding principles, countries pledged to restitute or reach a settlement with the heirs on Nazi-looted art in public collections.

Ude has argued that those principles don’t apply to so- called “degenerate art” seized from museums -- only to works seized from private collections.

Statute of Limitations

The heirs say that under civil law, Lissitzky-Kueppers never lost title to the painting. They also argue that under the terms of the Washington Principles and an agreement between German public authorities, the city of Munich is not entitled to employ technical defenses like statutes of limitations.

An earlier lawsuit by the heirs in 1992, before the Washington Principles were formulated, was thrown out on the basis that statutes had expired.

Lissitzky-Kueppers loaned “Sumpflegende” and 15 other works to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum in 1926, shortly before she left Germany. She emigrated to Moscow to join the Russian artist El Lissitzky, whom she married, according to the book “Lost Lives, Lost Art” by Melissa Mueller and Monika Tatzkow.

Banished to Siberia by Stalin as a German living in the Soviet Union during the war, she failed to recover her paintings. She died in penury in Novosibirsk in 1978.

The Nazis sold “Sumpflegende” in 1941. Several changes of ownership later, the picture was acquired by Munich and the Gabriele Muenter Foundation in 1982.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023