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The Colorful Nazi Life

March 17, 2017

It’s December 13, 1973. Everyone who is anyone has gathered in the historical wing of Lenbachhaus, Munich’s famed city art museum: the state minister is here, as is the mayor, the state curator, the museum directors, the city treasurers, the district commissioner, bank directors, professors, and the CEOs of Munich’s big companies. The men are wearing dark suits, almost as if they want to avoid stealing the show from the works of art. They believe that what’s happening here today is a turning point, something bigger than they are. With art and joie de vivre, Munich wants to shake off its image as an old Nazi stronghold, the “Capital of the Movement” that helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. One year earlier, in 1972, Munich celebrated the Olympic Games and presented itself as a young and dynamic city. The world marveled over its new Olympic Stadium. Directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder began experimenting with unusual forms. And now, on this snowy winter’s eve, the shadow of the Nazi era is set to be lifted symbolically at Lenbachhaus. The museum is exhibiting “The Colorful Life,” Wassily Kandinsky’s pivotal piece. Kandinsky was an icon of the Avant-garde that the Nazis branded as “degenerate”. Tonight, the world is meant to see that Munich is no longer the “Capital of the Movement”, but rather the home of modernity.

 

The painting is a speckled sea of green, blue, red, and turquoise. Born in Russia, Wassily Kandinsky painted “The Colorful Life” in 1907, shortly before he returned to his adopted home in Munich following years of travel. On this December day 66 years later, the Bayerische Landesbank is presenting the city art museum with a canvas that is 1.6 meters wide. It acquired the painting from a private collector in the Netherlands. Kandinsky’s oeuvre forms the basis of the institution’s international reputation. Today, the museum has the world’s biggest collection of the German-Russian master’s paintings. Kandinsky died in 1944 while in exile in the south of France. Gabriele Münter, his first life companion, hid a large part of his collection from the Nazis at her house in Murnau, close to Munich. In 1957, she entrusted the paintings to Lenbachhaus.

 

By building the collection, Munich wanted to free itself in some way from its Nazi heritage. It was at Königsplatz, a stone’s throw from Lenbachhaus, that Hitler organized a guard of honor to commemorate the dead of the failed coup of 1923. Hundreds of Nazis had marched in front of “the Führer’s building”. It was also in Munich that the future dictator saw his political rise in the 1920s. In 1937, the Nazis held their “Degenerate Art” exhibit in the Hofgarten’s arcades. Kandinsky’s works were among those vilified as a threat to the nation.

 

Thirty-six years later, “The Colorful Life” was added to the Lenbachhaus collection on permanent loan. The president of the Bayerische Landesbank, which acquired the work from a Dutch private collection at Lenbachhaus’s request, held a speech at the event. Munich mayor Georg Kronawitter praised the purchase as “generous”. A Süddeutsche Zeitung photographer asked the men to pose for a group picture in front of the painting. The guests sat at the their tables and drank, their eyes set firmly on the Kandinsky. On December 13, 1973, the golden age that the artist had portrayed in “The Colorful Life“ 1907 felt as if it were within reach in Munich.

 

However, the city wasn’t able to rid itself of its dark history that night. Quite the contrary. Süddeutsche Zeitung’s extensive research shows that “The Colorful Life”, the heart of the Kandinsky collection at Lenbachhaus, was more than likely stolen by the Nazis. Prior to the Wehrmacht’s occupation of Holland during World War II, it belonged to the Lewensteins, a Jewish family in Amsterdam who lost the painting in the fall of 1940. Only a few members of the manufacturing family were able to escape abroad; many were murdered in Auschwitz. It can no longer be verified whether the Lewensteins’ painting was stolen, or whether an acquaintance or relative gave it away. However, it is certain that the Lewensteins did not part from it voluntarily – the persecution of the Jews forced them to. Their descendants in the United States are now demanding either 80 million dollars or the painting’s return.

 

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung information, the painting was brought to Munich by Erika Hanfstaengl, a well-known figure in the Nazi art world. During the war, she was involved in Nazi plunder. Three decades later, Lenbachhaus obtained “The Colorful Life”, seemingly without asking about its history in the era of National Socialism.

 

The painting is a pivotal work of modernity. With it, Kandinsky depicted the larger and smaller details of the human existence. A Russian matron takes a bite of an apple, while a chubby young woman plays the flute. A pope shows his cross and an old wanderer his green beard. Young people are engaging in a game of tag, and their older counterparts are skirmishing with swords. A blonde woman’s dress blends into a meadow of flowers. High in the sky, above purple-colored clouds, a fortress sits upon a boldly dotted mountain. It is a shimmering depiction if life, with people clearly visible in a river landscape, who then dissolve into the painting as the beholder approaches.

 

The painting celebrates the golden age of a carefree existence firmly rooted in tradition, while at the same time reinventing it repeatedly. The master later wrote that he experienced the painting’s “confusion of masses, speckles, and lines” as an “alluring challenge”. It is Kandinsky’s artistic manifesto. Without this painting, it would be impossible to understand how he moved from his representational early work to the vivid abstractions with which he revolutionized art history.

 

The people of Munich have grown so accustomed to the painting that it feels like it was always there. Without “The Colorful Life”, their city would be like Florence without Botticelli’s “Venus” or Amsterdam without Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”. If the painting were gone, it would be an immeasurable loss for Munich. However, in light of the Lewensteins’ fate, the city carries a heavy historical responsibility. This brings forth new questions for Bavaria: should Kandinsky’s pivotal work be returned to the descendants of the persecuted? Should the family be paid out? Or should the family’s demands simply not be met?

 

The answers differ depending on who is being asked and what their interests are. First and foremost, there are the descendants. One of them is Robert Colin Lewenstein, a friendly middle-aged man from Ohio. He tells the story of his family during the occupation, about his father’s risky escape, and how much he would like justice to be served, if only in some small way. He says it’s not about the money. In fact, he would like to see the painting returned to Amsterdam’s Jewish Museum on loan. After all, Holland was his grandparents’ home.

 

The Lewensteins presented their concerns to the Bayerische Landesbank in 2015, and the bank subsequently turned to Lenbachhaus. Its director Matthias Mühling regrets what happened. He has no doubt that the Lewensteins were persecuted during the Nazi era. He also regrets that the museum’s curators didn’t suspect that “The Colorful life” was presumably looted art. Since 2004, Dutch researchers have known that the painting was at a Nazi auction in 1940. Apparently the museum was unaware of this.

 

Mühling says that, in agreement with the city of Munich, he advised the Bayerische Landesbank as owner of the painting to hand it over to the Limbach Commission, which makes recommendations related to looted Nazi art in Germany. The committee assesses legal, moral, and historical issues and makes recommendations on this basis. It is not a court – its decisions are not binding in Germany. It mainly looks at stolen Nazi art in museums, which is subject to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. With this international agreement, museums and public institutions committed to finding a “fair and just” solution for art that was stolen by the Nazis. Whether the Washington Principles apply to the Bayerische Landesbank is subject to debate. While its proximity to the state suggest they should, its corporate character suggest they shouldn’t.

 

Mühling, the museum director, says that he and the city of Munich recommended that the museum have the painting assessed by the Limbach Commission voluntarily. In his opinion, the results should be accepted by both sides, regardless of how things turn out.

 

The Limbach Commission has three options: it can recommend that the painting remains in the museum, that it be returned to the Lewenstein family, or that the descendants receive payment for damages. In the latter case, independent experts would have to assess the painting’s market value. Then the museum would be free to raise the money needed to buy it.

 

Apparently, the bank didn’t feel comfortable with this suggestion at first. On July 26, 2016, the bank told the Lewensteins’ lawyer that it couldn’t see any legal rights to the painting with regard to its return. The bank did, however, say it was prepared to call on the Limbach Commission, but only if the painting ultimately stayed at Lenbachhaus, in order to “do justice to Kandinsky’s special relationship to the city of Munich and the region of Upper Bavaria”. This meant that the results of a commission hearing would already be clear from the start: restitution was out of the question. Conversely, Mühling says he wanted to leave the decision to the commission.

 

The Lewensteins felt they were being treated unfairly

 

The bank’s letter caused the situation to escalate. The Lewensteins felt they were being treated unfairly; they were deeply hurt and suspected that they would end up getting nothing more than a commemorative plaque next to “Colorful Life”. Until now, however, they have not asked the bank whether or not the last word has really been spoken.

There could be a reason for this. The Canadian detective James Palmer supports families like the Lewensteins. His company Mondex searches for looted Nazi art that is hanging in museums or private homes around the world. His commission is generally a percentage of the restitution payments his clients receive. The higher the value of a work of art, the higher a detective’s commission. Palmer presumably informed the Lewenstein descendants that the painting was illegally auctioned off during the Nazi period. He is now on the case.

 

The Limbach Commission’s recommendation might make all the difference for Palmer. He would benefit far more from a restitution payment to the Lewensteins than if the Limbach Commission decided the painting should be left in Lenbachhaus. It’s entirely feasible for a painting with immeasurable significance in the history of art to see an increase in value from perhaps 20 to 80 or even 100 million dollars at an auction.

 

Last Thursday [editorial note: the German version of this article was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung’s weekend-edition on March 4, 2017], the Bavarian Landesbank relented and stated it had always been willing to go to the Limbach Commission. The bank said it “hoped” the painting would stay in Munich, but that this was no longer a “condition”. Now, it appears that the bank, the museum, and the city of Munich are towing the same line: all of them have said they would respect the Limbach Commission’s decision.

 

It’s not unlikely that the Landesbank’s sudden change of heart has something to do with recent press inquiries. It would also be fair to assume that this development is not what Palmer had reckoned with. Instead of now pushing for both parties to immediately call on the German Limbach Commission, lawyers for the Lewensteins recently filed a lawsuit in New York City, demanding either the painting’s return or a restitution payment of 80 million dollars. With this new escalation, the case has moved further from a solution than ever. What happens next and whether a US ruling is ultimately binding in Germany remains to be seen. The odds that the descendants of the Lewensteins will see a payout are increasingly slim. However, it is entirely possible that Munich will end up losing the painting.

 

For the city, the future of the painting isn’t the only thing at stake. The events of 1940 and 1972/73 are really what makes the case so significant. The painting’s fate shows how the city slipped into the unfortunate position of having to decide between late justice for the victims and its own self-made image as custodians of an anti-fascist modernity.

“The Colorful Life” tells the story of ignorance and self-reflection. Seen in the light, it’s completely absurd.

 

But if you look at it in the dark, into the abyss, you start to see people. They are neither good nor evil, their thoughts are neither black nor white, but they are full of astonishing contradictions. If you speak with people who were there, or search through the yellowed files of public and private archives, or sift through personnel records, you find rough résumés, application letters, business documents from art dealers and museums, and letters sent with the army postal service. And then, when you a take a closer look, the grey tones begin to change into color: just like with Kandinsky’s “The Colorful Life”, it takes many speckles to create a full picture.

 

There are many amazing characters in this story: one was a man from Hitler’s circles, who tried – and failed – to save the reputation of modern art in 1933. Another was a Jewish art collector, who got caught between Nazis and a confiscated art auction in a recently occupied Holland, and got paid for the “degenerate” work of art that was “The Colorful Life”. There was also a Dutch museum director who sweet-talked the occupiers, all the while hiding modern art in his basement vault. Not to mention the German art historian who, at the beginning of 1945, proudly looted “Jewish temples” in Italy. By May of 1945, she was already in Munich working for American art officers and returning Nazi-confiscated art to its rightful owners across Europe. And finally, there was also an anti-fascist museum director who, in the 1950s, refused to shake hands with old Nazis in management positions – but who nonetheless trained the Nazi art historian so valued by Heinrich Himmler to become a Kandinsky expert.

 

It’s all very human, indeed somewhat like the life depicted in “The Colorful Life”. Every actor thought and behaved within the boundaries of their own personal worlds. And yet together, they were all in the same boat, and found themselves in the same political circumstances.

 

On May 1, 1929, the Munich City Gallery opened in Lenbachhaus. Its director was the art historian Eberhard Hanfstaengl, a stocky, affable man with a mustache. Prior to the First World War, Munich was home to the Blue Rider Group, in which Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, and Franz Marc were active. Hanfstaengl was not a fan of this Avant-garde movement. He had a greater affinity to 19thcentury Munich mountain views. Portraits, paintings of the Bavarian countryside, and contemporaries who painted representational art were a good reflection of his taste.  

 

The museum’s inauguration was a big high-society event with men in three-piece suits and women with hats and expensive jewelry. On one of the pictures, a young, alert-looking woman can be seen in the crowd: Erika Hanfstaengl, the director’s daughter. Erika admired her father and shared his interests. She learned Italian at school and history was her strongest subject. Her teachers sang her praises, saying that she had “a loveable character and excellent manners” as well as a “very commendable work ethic”.

 

Four years later, the Nazis came to power. After the war, Erika claimed that she hadn’t voted in the March 1933 elections. This certainly wasn’t the case for another member of the long-established Munich Hanfstaengl family: Ernst, who went by the nickname of “Putzi”, was a close companion of Hitler’s. He financed and supported the dictator’s rise for years. His cousin Eberhard, Erika’s father, organized an exhibit in 1933 at Lenbachhaus on the ten-year anniversary of the ill-fated coup attempt against Hitler. Soon after, he was promoted to director of the National Gallery in Berlin.

 

At the start of the Nazi reign, art policy was not yet clear. In light of his family’s close ties to the Führer, Eberhard Hanfstaengl’s colleagues at first hoped that he would be able to convince Hitler to leave the German painters out of his crusade to vilify modern art. But when Eberhard Hanfstaengl spoke with Hitler in Berlin, he didn’t achieve anything. He was let go in 1937 when the hardliners took over and “degenerate art” was pulled from museums across Germany. He bounced back, however. Back in Munich, the network of Hitler’s bourgeois friends made Hanfstaengl an arts editor.

 

There were practically no Kandinsky paintings left in German museums

 

There were practically no Kandinsky paintings left in German museums; no shimmering lines, no bold geometries, no Russian-German myths. Museums in the German Reich lost more than 170 of the master’s works. However, the Avant-garde lived on in the Netherlands. At some point in the 1930s, “The Colorful Life” appears to have been exhibited at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, on loan from the Lewenstein family.

 

Hedwig Lewenstein-Weyermann died in 1937. A year later, the museum director David Cornelis Röell confirmed that the Stedelijk was holding “The Colorful Life” for the Lewenstein family. A museum employee from the transport department later noted that the painting was handed over to “Querido’s Kunsthandel”, an art dealership, on September 5, 1940. Abraham Querido was a Jewish art dealer who was later murdered in Auschwitz. His business card is still in the Stedelijk’s archives, complete with a note that the person who delivers the card should be handed the Kandinsky.

 

It isn’t clear who gave the orders to get “The Colorful Life” from the museum and give it to Querido, the middleman – was it someone from the museum, or a friend of the Lewensteins who had stayed in town, or perhaps a relative? The Dutch had already surrendered, and the Germans were occupying the Netherlands. Hedwig Lewenstein’s two children had barely made it out of Amsterdam, and the Germans had seized the family’s sewing machine factory.

 

Around noon on October 8, 1940, an auction was held at the Frederik Muller auction house in Amsterdam. The room was full, with auctioneers standing at the front. There were so many works of art on offer that the auction continued the next day. Many of the works were from the collections of Jews who had fled.

 

One of the people in the room was Alois Miedl, a banker from Munich who had lived in Holland for several years and was familiar with Amsterdam’s private collections. He got works of art for Hermann Göring here. Right after the occupation, Miedl had gotten a large share of the legendary Jewish art dealer Goudstikker’s collection for Göring, who was an art lover. His find included important works of art by Rembrandt and Frans Hals. He either kept or sold off the rest. Works from the Goudstikker collection were also offered on October 8 and 9, 1940. The auction house even advertised with them.

 

Profiteers like Miedl were not interested in object number 204, Kandinsky’s “The Colorful Life”. After all, as “degenerate art”, it was worth next to nothing. It was sold for the ridiculously low price of 250 guilders. The new owner could hardly believe his luck. His name was Sal Slijper and he wasn’t even meant to be there. In fact, he shouldn’t even have been in the country. What happened on this October afternoon is beyond comprehension. Slijper collected Avant-garde art; he owned a sizeable Piet Mondrian collection. Everyone in the Dutch art scene was aware of this. And everyone knew that Slijper was Jewish. But that didn’t stop him. Slijper was an art fanatic, a go-getter, as a Dutch museum expert who knew him personally described him. Perhaps Slijper wanted to save the Kandinsky from the Nazis in 1940.

 

There was someone else at the auction as well: the director of the Stedelijk Museum, David Cornelis Röell. He had already organized German-friendly exhibits; with his smooth demeanor, no one suspected him of anything. At the auction, he paid 160 gilders for another, more conventional Kandinsky from the Lewenstein collection. And after the auction, Röell hid both Kandinskys in the museum’s warehouse. In the museum’s books, “The Colorful Life” continued to be listed as the property of the Lewensteins, as if its ownership hadn’t changed. This protected the piece for Slijper. Soon after, he had to hide from the Nazis, and his housekeeper kept him in her attic.

 

The curators in the halls of the Bavarian National Museum in Munich likely also talked about the auction, which was known about across Europe. But hardly anyone here would have been outraged about the sale of stolen art: the Nazis had hoarded goods from confiscated Jewish collections here since “Kristallnacht” in 1938. It was during this period that Erika Hanfstaengl was a trainee at the museum. She may have read about the auction sale of “The Colorful Life” in a newspaper. But at this point in time, she was probably unimpressed by green beards, laughing Russians, and purple-colored clouds.

 

Erika Hanfstaengl looked like a confident, capable young women who knew what she wanted

 

The delicate woman with short curls was educated in the 1930s. She studied art history in Berlin, spent a year abroad in the United States, and then wrote her doctoral dissertation with a professor who was sympathetic to the Nazi regime. At the Olympic Games in 1936, she worked as a translator. Personal pictures show a carefree student climbing the mountains close to Munich or driving through Berlin in a convertible with her brother. She looked like a confident, capable young women who knew what she wanted.

 

Her father supported her completely, which may explain why the young scientist received an attractive offer in May 1941: she was invited to work in Bozen, South Tirol for the “SS-Ahnenerbe”, a Nazi research institute whose purpose was to document “German” cultural heritage. Hanfstaengl travelled around with photographers to evaluate and document castles, churches, and fortresses. Some of her snapshots still exist today. They show a strange pre-modern world that is practically devoid of people, animals, or cars. Streets and town squares are empty. Hanfstaengl’s photographs make it look as though there was nothing in Italy but pure art.

 

Her private photo album is much different: it shows holidays with friends, good food, and her mountain hikes with her boss Walter Frodl, who was barely older than she was. Frodl was a curator from Kärnten, Austria, and the director of the Reichsgaumuseum in Klagenfurt. In a letter of reference later on, Frodl had nothing but positive things to say about his assistant, who took charge of operations during his long absences, and always supported him. A professor who knew Frodl described him as “lazy and not very intellectual, but a connoisseur of Burgenland wine”.

 

This was a pattern in Erika Hanfstaengl’s career: most of the time, she worked closely with male bosses who represented their organizations well on the outside, but who did sloppy work. The “good soul”, as former bosses and colleagues refer to Erika Hanfstaengel, who died in 2003, did most of the work. She was hard working, precise, and paid great attention to detail. Otherwise, no one can remember anything about her. Was Ms. Hanfstaengl really that unimportant?

 

One could say that Erika Hanfstaengl’s entire career was the result of this misconception. The people who take care of operations make decisions every day. And those who are underestimated have free reign behind the scenes.

 

Art historian Erika Hanfstaengl then distributed the confiscated goods

 

Hanfstaengl loved her work in South Tirol; her letters to her parents read like reports from an exciting holiday. In stiff handwriting, she wrote about the morning mist, the sun on the mountaintops, the cold apartment, and the good food. The tone of these letters didn’t change when Frodl promoted her in November 1943. Her new office was the Museo Civico in Udine, where Hanfstaengl was responsible for the preservation of historical monuments. But in occupied northern Italy, Frodl and Hanfstaengl were also in charge of “Verwertung“, or “recovery” of cultural assets, as they referred to it. Countless Jews from Eastern Europe were stranded in the harbor of Trieste as they were trying to flee. Many were either imprisoned there or sent to the gas chambers, where they were shot, killed, and burned. Their property was left behind. After the SS had already plundered the premises, Erika Hanfstaengl looked at what was left. In search of artwork she also went to private homes of Jewish residents in Fruili that had been systematically raided by the Nazis. The art historian then distributed the confiscated goods, works of art, and valuables to Austrian museums, libraries, and auction houses.

 

In the Trieste Synagogue, large piles of books were left behind to be “recovered”, “verwertet”. The art historian sent the best ones to Klagenfurt, or in other cities of the Reich. In a letter of reference, Frodl confirmed that Hanfstaengl “almost always” ran the office in Udine alone. In letters to her parents, she rather spoke of how she stopped soldiers from laying their weapons on historically important fortresses. She only mentioned partisan fighting briefly because she couldn’t travel to certain mountain regions. She didn’t write that, in 1944, the Germans were shooting the residents of entire villages close by in the war against partisans.

 

A border-crossing certificate for the spring of 1945 shows that Hanfstaengl stayed in Italy until the war over. However, as early as May 1945, shortly after the Germans surrendered, she had an impressive new job. She was back in Munich working for the American Monuments Men in the former party headquarters of the NSDAP at Königsplatz. The group collected works of art that the Nazis had stolen and returned them to other European countries.

The Americans also needed knowledgeable employees, and it appears they were unaware of the major role this young assistant had played in Nazi art theft operations. There are documents in the US archives that describe how the Americans appreciated Hanfstaengl’s approach, which was characterized by a mix of diligence and assertiveness. In some instances, she would insist on the preservation of worm-eaten wooden sculptures; in others, she would initiate complex restitutions to Russia. Once again, she had a boss who was thankful for her thoroughness: Officer Craig Hugh Smyth. When the Americans left Munich, he found her a job at the newly founded Central Institute for Art History in the same building.

 

In the Nazi building at Königsplatz close to Lenbachhaus, Erika Hanfstaengl sorted pictures and filed her snapshots from South Tirol into the art history picture archive.

 

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the Kandinsky owner Sal Slijper was finally free. He married the housekeeper who had so bravely hidden him from Nazi henchmen. His “The Colorful Life” was still stored at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Survivors in the Lewenstein family inquired about the painting after the war, but weren’t told much. They also didn’t find out that Sal Slijper was the painting’s new owner.

 

Several years later, Erika Hanfstaengl experienced her first and only career setback. At the age of 43, she had moved in with her father following a short-lived marriage. At the Central Institute, her supervisor had also been an employee of the “Deutsche Kunstschutz” in Italy during the war. He must have known everything about his photography boss’s previous life. He alleged that she was not thorough enough in her work, which was hardly credible, but successfully prevented her from becoming a state employee nonetheless. She contested and lost.

 

But it was unthinkable that a Hanfstaengl would remain unemployed for very long in 1950s Munich. In 1953, Erika’s father Eberhard retired from his position as director of the Munich Pinakotheks. His successor was a well-known Nazi art thief. Eberhard’s cousin, the Hitler friend Putzi Hanfstaengl, was considered rehabilitated and was working on his memoirs. Alois Miedl, Göring’s art purchaser from Amsterdam, smuggled important works of art from the Netherlands at the end of the war. Until now, it wasn’t known that he was also in Munich in 1953 and in 1957. This is revealed on his art dealer’s list of clients in Munich. It’s entirely possible that Miedl and Erika Hanfstaengl ran into each other at a museum or in one of the city’s lounges.

 

In 1956, a man from Hamburg who wanted to have nothing to do with old Nazis became director of Lenbachhaus. Hans Konrad Röthel enjoyed reading the writings of exiled art historians. After the war, he held a management position with the Monuments Men in Munich. At Lenbachhaus, the slim, clever man turned his nose up at the 19th century artists that Hitler loved, and instead promoted classical modernism. He successfully convinced Gabriele Münter to give Kandinsky’s paintings to Lenbachhaus. He then needed a curator to handle the Avant-garde. But such a person proved hard to find. Then Erika Hanfstaengl came along. And she was looking for a job.

 

The two of them got along swimmingly. Röthel travelled to the United States regularly for his Kandinsky research, while his curator stayed behind in Munich and measured each Kandinsky graphic down the millimeter. She also helped Röthel with acquisitions. According to documents found at the Munich archives, the city’s cultural advisor was horrified to find that Hanfstaengl had once smuggled an Alexej von Jawlensky painting from Italy at her boss’s request without a clear export license. When Röthel retired in 1971, she acted as temporary director at the museum and ran its affairs alone until the middle of 1972.

 

“We are trying to get money from the bank, among others”

 

During this time, Sal Slijper, the Kandinsky owner, died in northern Holland. His Mondrian collection went to the museum in The Hague; his wife kept only “The Colorful Life”. According to Süddeutsche Zeitung information, she wanted to sell it and called an art dealer in Germany’s Rhineland, who then contacted Lenbachhaus. On one of his letters from March 1972, there is a note in Erika Hanfstaengl’s stiff handwriting that describes what she had said on the phone. “The gallery is interested, (…) would like to think about funding.” In April, she wrote: “we are trying to get money from the bank, among others” on another piece of paper.

 

And that is exactly what happened. The Landesbank stepped in and paid for the painting. Before the purchase, there hadn’t been any indication that any of the parties involved knew of the Nazi auctioning of the painting. The city of Munich, former director Röthel, and Michael Petzet – who was appointed director in the summer of 1972 –may not have seen any reason for suspicion. At the same time, there is no indication that anyone was interested in finding out exactly how Sal Slijper had acquired such an important painting during the war, either.

 

Michael Petzet remembers the sense of euphoria that was felt in Munich the year of the 1972 Olympics, when he was director of Lenbachhaus. The 84-year-old, who has since gone on to become a well-known advocate for the preservation of historical monuments, lives in his old house in Munich between piles of files that testify to his life as a researcher. There is a flokati rug on his living room floor. A wild white cat he is taking care of tiptoes across it.

 

When he began his tenure at Lenbachhaus, he says the museum felt tranquil, even a little sleepy to him. But a few highlights would soon change this. The Kandinsky was one of them. “The Colorful Life” arrived at the museum while he was director. When asked whether he knows that this painting once belonged to the Lewensteins, a Jewish family, the old man shakes his head of white hair, looks up, and thinks in silence for a moment. He is then told that the Lewensteins had to flee an occupied Amsterdam in 1940, and that the painting was sold off at a Nazi auction. Petzet remains silent. The subject seems to make him uncomfortable. Then he talks about himself, about the positions he held and could have held, and how life continued for him after his time at Lenbachhaus.

 

But doesn’t he remember anything about how such an important painting came to Munich? “Yes,” Petzet says, “there was a lovely ceremony when the painting arrived. Everyone was there. It was a big day.”

 

Contributor: Frederik Obermaier Translation: Valérie Callaghan

 

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