New York museum hands back piece stolen by Nazis

07th December 2015

The New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has handed back a piece of work initially stolen by the Nazis, to the heirs of its rightful owner.

The move comes on the back of a decade-long dispute involving Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s vivid yellow, red and black Sand Hills, which was deemed as being degenerate by the Nazi regime and was left behind by author Max Fischer when he escaped the clutches of Adolf Hitler's oppressive regime and fled for the US in 1935.

It is a work that is well-known for its jagged brush strokes and warming colours, both of which invoke the feelings of passionate warmth that the Nazis sought to eradicate from public arts and culture.

There is no question that it was the jewel in the crown of Fischer's collection, which is widely considered to be one of the most important in expressionist art to be assembled in pre-Nazi Germany.

That would certainly explain why Fischer seemed quite so devastated to have lost it, with the Daily Telegraph recently claiming that a letter sent to a lawyer by his sister-in-law Anne Rowland, said: “Max is very much moaning about his lost fortune and tells everyone how the Nazis not only robbed him of his home, but also that they robbed him of all his property.”

Of course, Fischer was by no means the only enthusiast to have their art collection plundered by a regime hellbent on controlling the thoughts, actions and even emotions of its people.

Journey to New York

Yet just like Fischer, Sand Hills eventually made its way across the Atlantic and to the United States.

MoMA purchased the painting in 1949 from another gallery in New York and thought little of it until they set about creating a database of all the works that had changed hands during the war.

It was at this point they discovered that the painting had originally belonged to Fischer, sparking an intense legal battle that would last for around a decade.

The first case was brought in 2004 but was initially dismissed due to confusion over which painting Fischer actually owned.

It took plenty of in-depth and time-consuming research to eventually establish that it did indeed belong to the Fischer family.

Despite the case taking such a long time to be settled, the museum has been largely praised by David Rowland, a lawyer for Fischer’s descendants, who led the initial legal case 11 years ago.

Upon hearing of its return to the Fischer family, he told the Telegraph: “MoMA’s professional handling of this matter, cooperation in sharing research, analysis of complex historical information, and ultimate restitution of this Kirchner artwork is an example of museum best practices in the handling of Nazi-era art claims.

"The heirs of Max Fischer are grateful to MoMA for their return of this important artwork. MoMA said it was happy to return the work to its rightful owner."

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