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Is that Looted Art? A Museum Questions the Ownership of its Own Collection

  • Franz Xaver Winterhalter - Damenportrait, 1827 © Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen
  • Hermann Göring leaving the art dealer’s Goudstikker in Amsterdam, 1941
  • In the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam artworks which were impounded and displaces by National Socialists were temporarily stored and ascribed to their former owners, 1950
May 6, 2018
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

Ever since the World War II ended, there has been a seemingly endless search for the artworks around the globe, the ones that the Nazi took away from their rightful owners. Their recovery has been a very slow-paced one, and from time to time we get a headline stating that a looted artwork was discovered in a big museum, marking the beginning of a long and painful battle.

But this might be the very first time that a museum comes forward almost out of the blue, to question the provenance of its own collection – consisting of some 400 works of art.

The Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen is taking a critical look at its belongings, as one of the first projects dedicated to the specifics and challenges of ownership research after 1945, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Washington Principles.

Left Karl Caspar - Der brennende Dornbusch, 1916 Right The sculpture Johannes der Täufer from the atelier of the Swabian Baroque sculptor Jörn Zürn
Left: Karl Caspar – Der brennende Dornbusch, 1916. Purchased for Friedrichshafen in 1957 © Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen / Right: The sculpture Johannes der Täufer from the atelier of the Swabian Baroque sculptor Jörn Zürn. Originates from old private ownership in Friedrichshafen, purchased in 1954 (Example for a clarified unproblematic provenance) © Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

Tracing History

The starting point of this unique investigation traces back to the year 1938, when one of Hermann Göring’s most important agents, Joseph Angerer, reached out to the Zeppelin Museum and sold artworks confiscated in the “Degenerate Art” campaign.

The institution’s geographic position, one fairly close to Switzerland, was in much favor for dealers such as Angerer, but also Benno Griebert, who managed to re-establish himself after the war too and was in close contact with the museum.

And so, countless works from former Jewish collections circulated the Swiss art market, some of it through the Adorf Weinmüller auction house in Munich, which was one of the most important profiteers in this regard, and was also one of Griebert’s collaboration partners.

Soldiers of the Allied Forces in the secured ‘Collection‘ Hermann Göring in Berchtesgarden, 1945
Soldiers of the Allied Forces in the secured ‘Collection‘ Hermann Göring in Berchtesgarden, 1945. © ullstein bild

The Obligation of Ownership! An Art Collection under Scrutiny

Indeed, the current collection of the Zeppelin Museum was established after 1945, following the acquirement of the first 100 artworks after everything was lost in the war. The door were officially open in 1957, and works from the Gothic era, the 19th century and Modernism were constantly added to the roster.

Now, some 50 years later, the provenance of almost 400 artworks, as well as the biographies of notorious art dealers, were meticulously examined for the first time. Over 40 pieces serve the purpose of presenting critical and harmless, and solved and unsolved cases.

For example, there is the story of Adoration, a late Gothic panel which was purchased in 1959. It came with an explanation that it never made it to the planned, but never made Führermuseum in Linz. In truth, it was obtained by Hermann Göring in 1939, who not only claimed works from dispossessed Jewish collections to satisfy his passion for collecting art, but also re-sold them to obtain foreign currency. Göring sold a collection of 167 paintings, among which Adoration to art dealer Goudstikker in Amsterdam. It is still unclear who owned the panel in 1939.

Left The late gothic adoration from the ‘Collection‘ Hermann Göring was regarded missing since 1945, purchased for Friedrichshafen in 1959 Right Image of the ruins of the ‘Städtischen Museum’ 1944
Left: The late gothic adoration from the ‘Collection‘ Hermann Göring was regarded missing since 1945, purchased for Friedrichshafen in 1959. (A harmless panel painting with controversial provenance) © Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen / Right: Image of the ruins of the ‘Städtischen Museum’ 1944. (During the war the old archaeological local history collection remained in the museum building and therefore was destroyed) © Stadtarchiv Friedrichshafen

At Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen

The question remains: is it all looted art? As stated in the press release:

In many cases this question cannot be answered conclusively. The aim of this exhibition is to create transparency, to draw attention to the necessity of ongoing research, and to rule out the possession of artworks that do not really belong to the museum.

The Obligation of Ownership! An Art Collection under Scrutiny is on view at the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany, through February 3rd, 2019. It is designed by neo.studio, who were also responsible for the Gurlitt collection shows in Bern and Bonn in 2017.

Featured image: Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Damenportrait, 1827 © Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen; Hermann Göring leaving the art dealer’s Goudstikker in Amsterdam, 1941. © Collection Spaarnestad Photo; In the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam artworks which were impounded and displaces by National Socialists were temporarily stored and ascribed to their former owners, 1950. © Collection Spaarnestad Photo. All images courtesy Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen.