Dutch Golden Age painting returned to heirs of Nazi Spoliation victims

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe announced in a press release yesterday (21 March 2019) that a painting attributed to 17th century painter Jan van der Heyden has been returned to the heirs of the Jewish family from whom it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941;

For eight years the London-based CLAE has been negotiating the restitution of ‘Holländisches Platzbild’, (‘View of a Dutch Square’), which depicts the Roman Catholic Xanten Cathedral in North Rhine-Westphalia (also known as St Victor’s Cathedral in Xanten, Germany). Until recently, the painting hung in the chapter house of the Dombauverein Xanten, the cathedral’s foundation. A copy of an original painting by Van der Heyden, now in the Louvre, it is thought to be by the same artist’s hand.

Austrian Jewish couple Gottlieb (1867-1952) and Mathilde Kraus (1873-1954) amassed a collection of over 160 paintings including the Van der Heyden piece, which they housed in their Vienna apartment. Following Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, the Kraus family fled Vienna for the USA. In June 1941, their entire art collection was confiscated by Gestapo and the following year ‘View of a Dutch Square’ was sold to Hitler’s friend and photographer, Heinrich Hoffman.

The painting resurfaced in May 1945 when Allied officers discovered Hoffman’s art collection in Bavaria. The Allies proceeded to transfer it to the State of Bavaria in 1959 for restitution to the original owners and the collection entered the Bavarian State Paintings Collections in Munich. Over the decades that ensued, the Kraus family sought tirelessly to recover their art collection but to no avail.

CLAE research into the work led to the shocking revelation that it was handed over to Mrs Henriette Hoffman-von Schirach, the daughter of Heinrich Hoffman, as a ‘return sale’ in 1962 for 300 DM (£133). This was not an isolated incident. The CLAE discovered the Kraus painting was one of many cultural items secretly returned to the families of high-ranking Nazis by Bavaria following the end of the Second World War.

Henriette went on to sell the Van der Heyden via a Cologne auction house for 16,100 DM (£7,136) in 1963. The buyer, the Dombauverein Xanten, was unaware of the Kraus family provenance. In 2011, the CLAE submitted a restitution claim to Xanten on behalf of the Kraus family and it was recently agreed that the Dombauverein Xanten will be returning the work to the family’s heirs.

The Dombauverein’s Chairman, Mr Hans-Wilhem Barking, is pleased “the Xantener Dombauverein can make a small contribution… to making good the injustice done by the Nazi criminals”. Barking was careful to note the return constituted a voluntary “surrender” of the painting rather than a “return” because of the implication the Dombauverein acquired the work unlawfully.

Barking also highlighted that the Dombauverein was not legally obligated to surrender the painting.  International agreements on the restitution of looted art, such as the Washington Agreement, do not apply to non-profit, court registered association such as the Xanten Cathedral Association.

Church officials in Xanten are expected to hand over the painting to Gottlieb and Mathilde’s American great-grandson, lawyer John Graykowski today (21 March 2019). “My family has been waiting for this moment for eighty years, when Gottlieb, Mathilde, and Marie Kraus fled Vienna with their lives and little else”, Graykowski stated. “It took 80 years, but it shouldn’t have even taken eight, since the first time we presented the incontrovertible evidence and that it belonged to my family,” he added.

‘View of a Dutch Square’ is only the 7th painting from the original Kraus collection to be restituted to the family. There are still 160 works missing.

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