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Rare violin tests Germany’s pledge to atone for Nazi past

BERLIN – No one knows why Felix Hildesheimer, a Jewish merchant of musical supplies, bought a precious violin built by cremonic master Giuseppe Guarneri from a store in Stuttgart, Germany, in January 1938. His own store had lost non-Jewish customers. because of the Nazi boycotts, and his two daughters fled the country soon after. His grandsons say it’s possible that Hildesheimer was hoping to sell the violin in Australia, where he and his wife, Helene, had planned to build a new life with their youngest daughter.

But the couple’s efforts to obtain an Australian visa failed, and Hildesheimer committed suicide in August 1939. More than 80 years later, his 300-year-old violin – valued at around $ 185,000 – is at the center of a dispute that threatens to undermine Germany. commitment to return items looted by the Nazis.

The Government Advisory Commission on the Return of Cultural Property Looted by the Nazis determined in 2016 that the violin was almost certainly either sold by Hildesheimer under duress or seized by the Nazis after his death. In its first case concerning a musical instrument, the jury recommended to the current owner, the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, a music education organization, to pay the concessionaire’s grandsons compensation of 100,000 euros, or approximately $ 121,000; in return, the foundation could keep the instrument, which it planned to lend to talented violin students.

But the foundation refuses to pay. Having first said he could not raise the funds, he now argues that there may be no justification for compensation. In a Jan. 20 statement, the foundation said “current information” suggested that Hildesheimer was not forced to abandon his business until 1939, instead of 1937, as previously believed. So, the statement added, “we have to assume that the violin was sold as a retail product in his music store.”

Last week, the Advisory Commission lost patience and issued a public statement to pressure the Hagemann Foundation to comply with its recommendation.

“Both sides accepted this as a fair and just solution,” the statement said, accusing the foundation of failing to show “serious commitment to comply with the commission’s recommendation.” Efforts to challenge the recommendation – four years after its publication – by suggesting that the Jewish dealer sold the violin under perfectly normal conditions mean that “the foundation does not only contravene existing principles on the return of looted art by the Nazis, ”the panel said. , “It also ignores the accepted facts about life in Nazi Germany.”

The foundation’s refusal to pay jeopardizes a system for handling Nazi-looted art claims that has been in place for nearly two decades and that has led to the return of works from public museums and, in 2019, of two paintings from the German government’s own art collection. .

Lawmakers formed the group in 2003, after endorsing the Washington Principles, a 1998 international accord calling for “just and just” solutions for pre-war homeowners and their heirs whose art had been confiscated by the Nazis. Families of Jews whose property has been expropriated rarely succeed in recovering looted cultural property from German courts, due to statutes of limitations and rules that protect bona fide buyers of stolen property. Thus, the Advisory Commission, which arbitrates between the victims of spoliation and the holders of disputed cultural property, is often the applicants’ only recourse.

But the commission is not a court and has no legal power to implement its recommendations, said Hans-Jürgen Papier, chairman of the committee and former president of the German Constitutional Court, in an interview.

“Instead, he has the function of a mediator,” he said. “Until now, we have been able to count on public institutions to submit to the commission’s processes and implement its recommendations,” he added. “If that doesn’t work anymore, that’s unacceptable from our point of view.”

After the purchase of Hildesheimer, the tracks of the Guarneri violin disappeared until 1974, when it resurfaced in a store in the city of Cologne, in western Germany, and was bought by the violinist. Sophie Hagemann. She died in 2010, bequeathing it to the foundation she had created to promote the work of her composer husband and support young musicians.

The Hagemann Foundation, which has since restored the violin, began investigating its previous ownership after his death. Noting the provenance discrepancy between 1938 and 1974, he recorded the instrument in a German government database of Nazi-looted cultural property, hoping to find more information on the Hildesheimer family. An American journalist found the grandchildren of the music dealer and the foundation agreed to submit the case to the Advisory Commission.

When the commission ruled in 2016 that the violin was likely to have been sold under duress, or seized after Hildesheimer’s death, the Hagemann Foundation agreed to its terms and also promised that the students it lent the violin would give regular concerts in Hildesheimer’s disease. Memory.

But the advisory commission’s statement last week said it had detected no “serious will” on the part of the foundation to increase compensation by € 100,000. The foundation’s continued description of the Guarneri Violin as “an instrument of understanding” on its website is “particularly inappropriate,” the jury said, given its refusal to pay the heirs.

Foundation president Fabian Kern declined a request for an interview but issued a statement saying the foundation had “made countless efforts over several years to implement the commission’s recommendation.”

David Sand, Hildesheimer’s California-based grandson, said in a telephone interview that the family had been “very accommodating and even offered the foundation fundraising assistance in emails over the past four years. last years.

“If the commission can be challenged without consequences, I don’t see how these cases can be handled in the future,” he added.

Papier, the chairman of the committee, said he hoped the committee’s decision to inform the media about the foundation’s non-compliance would raise awareness among lawmakers and the public about the issues at stake. Although the Hagemann Foundation is a private entity , it has close ties to the Nuremberg University of Music, which is owned by the German state of Bavaria, he said.

He said he had already sought support from the Bavarian government, “but in the end nothing happened. Perhaps political pressure will be exerted to ensure that this settlement, seen by all parties concerned as fair and equitable, is finally implemented.

But a spokeswoman for the Bavarian Culture Ministry said it was “up to the private foundation to act on the recommendations of the advisory committee. The state of Bavaria has no legal basis to influence private owners. “

A spokesperson for the German Federal Ministry of Culture echoed these sentiments. The ministry has “no tools available to compel a private foundation to implement a commission recommendation,” he said.

All of this leaves the commission “standing and dry,” said Stephan Klingen, art historian at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich.

“The committee’s only options are to hope that politicians somehow get them out of this mess, or to resign en masse,” Klingen said. “This puts the future of the commission on a razor’s edge. If there is no political support, then the German restitution policy has reached the end of the line.

“If the heirs cannot be confident in the implementation of the commission’s recommendations,” he added, “then why would they take their business there?”

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