Perhaps the toughest question Silke Reuther has faced in her research for the Stolen Art exhibition is: Who’s the owner?
Ms. Reuther, an art historian, spent months researching the history of the cutlery for the exhibition. She works in provenance research at the Museum for Applied Art in Hamburg, where she investigates the origins and, most of all, the previous owners of the museum’s treasures.
Provenance research, which involves looking into the origin history of an art item, is a term normally used in the fine arts, but Ms. Reuther focuses on the applied aspect of art history. One would think that investigating the past of items that look like flea market junk is a dull endeavor, but nothing could be further from the truth.
To accompany Ms. Reuter as she searches for clues throughout her museum is to encounter questions and stories that connect decorative objects with the fates of individuals. The results of her research can be seen in an exhibition that opened on Sept. 12.
The Museum for Applied Art, a cream-colored building behind Hamburg’s main train station, is a busy place these days. Japanese tourists, Germans vacationing on the Baltic Sea and groups of local school children stroll through the galleries, admiring Madonnas and tapestries, silver trophies and French faience pottery, Asian teacups, fashion, 1920s poster art, and much more. The collection consists of about 500,000 objects, of which 600 were purchased between 1933 and 1945.
The show, titled “Stolen Art,” focuses on this period and on objects that were confiscated “as a result of Nazi persecution,” says Ms. Reuter. This was also the case with the silver that looked like something from a flea market. In fact, it was owned by Jewish families whose property was confiscated in 1939.
The silver, dubbed “metal donation for the German Reich,” was to be melted down and reused in weapons factories. At the time, two museum directors examined the material to determine whether any of it was sufficiently interesting to be incorporated into their collections. But there was so much material that they were unable to complete their task, and by the end of the war, there were no fewer than 30,000 objects in the vault of the administration’s financial section, known as the “Silver Cellar.”
The British military government ordered the precious objects returned to their rightful owners. But it wasn’t an easy task, which is why the city of Hamburg and the Jewish Trust Conference agreed to a compensation amount in 1958 (the term “compensation” is a euphemism in itself), to be paid in lieu of items whose owners could no longer be found. This left about a ton of silver objects, which were distributed among the museums in Hamburg.
The exhibition is an attempt to finally break a taboo and put an end to speechlessness.
After that, the items were never brought out again, never researched and never dealt with. In fact, because museums were at such a loss over what to do with the looted property, they simply hushed up the issue. “Compensation was certainly paid, and yet we cannot be objective in our treatment of this silver. We can’t simply exhibit it, as it isn’t ordinary material in our collection,” says Ms. Reuther.
But it isn’t just the silver that presents such as enormous challenge for provenance researchers. The 600 objects purchased in the Nazi era raise uncomfortable questions. Are they collectors’ items, or perhaps everyday objects once owned by Jewish families who needed money to escape? Are they items acquired by shady art dealers, items that used to belong to Hamburg residents who had already disappeared into concentration camps?
These are the difficult questions Silke Reuther is investigating. “We take this historic responsibility seriously when we examine our collection. How did the objects get here in the first place? What’s their history? And in what context can they be placed?” she asks.
The research didn’t begin as a completely voluntary effort. Germany signed the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in 1998. It required museums to identify and return cultural assets that had been confiscated in the context of Nazi persecution, especially from Jewish owners.
Could the intricately decorated door from Kaliningrad, a gem in the museum’s Renaissance collection, be part of those assets? Ms. Reuther investigated the issue when the gallery was being newly furnished. It was an unusual case. Before the magnificent doorway, with its Corinthian columns, carvings and inlays made of oak, ash, maple and cedar was permanently installed in the gallery, the museum’s management wanted to be sure that it would not suddenly find itself confronted with the claims of people who had been dispossessed.
As it turned out, old correspondence relating to the purchase was found in the archives. An Alice Aschmann from Kaliningrad, then known by its German name Königsberg, had offered to sell the unusual object to the museum. But her first letter was lost. “You read the reply from Konrad Hüseler, the provisional museum director, who writes: ‘No, we are not interested, and certainly not at that price,'” says Ms. Reuther.
The seller quickly agreed to a much lower price, perhaps suspiciously so, but it was 1937. “It seems apparent that Mrs. Aschmann had to sell at any price,” says Ms. Reuther. “However, we were unable to place the family in a Jewish context. There were no circumstances to suggest persecution.”
The only information Ms. Reuther was able to glean about Alice Aschmann was that she died in Hamburg in 1970. Then she decided to post a photo of the door and the information she had about it on a website called www.lostart.de.
A Munich journalist contacted Ms. Reuther and told her that he had heard about the door, and that Alice Aschmann had been his grandmother. After the sudden death of her husband, Mrs. Aschmann needed money to support the family, which explains why she quickly agreed to a deal that would be considered morally questionable or even sordid today. The new exhibition also tells the story of the Königsberg door.
The show begins with two glass display cases in the foyer, containing 100 objects that have already been studied. Then the visitor is sent on an obstacle course to every floor and every department of the museum. Here and there, bright red signs point to individual objects – a vase, a bronze, a trophy – and describe how the objects reached the museum.
The exhibition is an attempt to finally break a taboo and put an end to speechlessness. The stories of these works of art cannot simply be placed into display cases and accompanied by panels describing the objects, their dimensions and what they are made of. Instead, the visitor is offered explanations, provided with context and told biographies.
Nothing is as easy to explain as it seems at first glance, as the Budge collection illustrates. Henry and Emma Budge, wealthy Jewish art collectors, left their mark throughout the museum. In 1910, after coming to Hamburg from the United States, the couple moved into a building on Harvestehuder Weg dubbed the Palais Budge.
Emma Budge sought advice from Justus Brinckmann, the founder of the Museum for Applied Art, and she later befriended his successor, Max Sauerlandt. She was a great patron of the museum, donating money for its purchases as well as items from her private collection.
One example is an item referred to as a “small cabinet,” cataloged under inventory number 1931.210, a sort of miniature dresser in the style of the Renaissance. Another curiosity is a cup, labeled “Southern Germany, around 1550-1600,” equipped with an odd little bell on its stem, so that everyone could hear its user reaching for his wine.
There is more to the story of Emma Budge than meets the eye. In a will written in 1933, she bequeathed her art collection to her favorite museum. When her friend Max Sauerlandt was driven out of office a few weeks after the Nazi takeover, she amended her will, ordering that Hamburg was to receive absolutely nothing.
And what happened? Her estate, including the art collection, was dissolved after her death. Everything was sold at auction in 1937 and scattered to the four winds. “It was an auction that is clearly viewed as a forced auction today; the Budge heirs received none of the proceeds,” said Ms. Reuther. The City of Hamburg has since compensated the heirs twice.
Stories like these are what give viewers pause and make the exhibition a worthwhile experience. They also suggest that Ms. Reuther and her colleagues still have their work cut out for them.
The “Stolen Art” exhibition is being shown at the Museum for Applied Art, Steintorplatz, Hamburg. It opened Sept. 12 and can be seen from Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., and also Thursday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. www.mkg-hamburg.de
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Christopher Sultan. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org