Restitution of Nazi Looted Art
Two years after the restitution of “Street Scene,” Berlin art lovers still bemoan the
“traumatic experience” of losing the painting, calling it a “bleeding wound.”
Berlin's Brücke Museum, named for the movement to which Kirchner belonged,
owned “Street Scene” until early August 2006. The gift shop still defiantly sells
gaudy colored bags with an image of “Street Scene” printed on the front and black
There has been a shift in the political and cultural parameters of the debate since the dispute over Nazi-looted art began like a hurricane in fall 2006, bringing first the German and then the international press along with it. "The boundaries of propriety were exceeded," said George Heuberger, the representative of the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany.
Those opposing the restitution went beyond criticizing what they saw as Berlin’s inadequate and unprofessional crisis management of the “Street Scene” restitution. Full-page articles appeared in leading German newspapers that painted Jewish heirs as greedy speculators and American law firms as ambulance chasers in search of skyhigh profits. The well-regarded Hess Family, a German Jewish family which collected art, and faced persecution in Nazi Germany was of only marginal interest to these critics.
For the first time, the public - including the political officials responsible, all the way up to the German government - became aware that there were still works hanging on the walls of German museums that had been expropriated from their Jewish owners by the Nazis.
The Kirchner discussion led to a broad debate on restitution. The politicians responsible promised more professionalism and improved research into the provenance of works of art. In Germany and around the world, policy makers have realized that open questions on looted art must be cleared up swiftly.
We have made an effort with this book to tell the true story behind the “Street Scene,” using the latest research findings. The time that the painting was created, on the eve of World War I, when Alfred Hess developed into an art collector and a unique flowering of culture began to blossom in Germany’s first-ever democracy, is as exciting as the “big-city Berlin society” .
Previously unpublished documents prove that the personal persecution of the collector Alfred Hess and his family and the battle against the “modern” art they col- lected and promoted did not begin with the Nazi takeover in January of 1933, but in the so-called golden twenties. There are chapters in the history of Nazi persecution that have not yet been told: the piecemeal shipment of works from the Hess collection into Switzerland, and the successful Nazi attempt to put a stop to these property transfers into safety abroad. It has now been documented as fact that art dealers and collectors used every chance to acquire works of art at low prices, apparently without moral scruples, from Jewish people who, as even E.L. Kirchner in far-off Davos knew, “had to go away” to save their very lives.