The German government has intervened to provide $1.28 million to the Wilhelm Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen so that the institution could buy back The Judgement of Paris, a Nazi-looted Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting stolen from the Hess family during World War II, Reuters reports.
The painting originally comes from the collection of Alfred Hess, a Jewish shoe-manufacturer who died in 1931. Following Hitler’s rise to power, Hess’s wife, Tekla, was forced to store several of the family’s paintings in the Cologne Art Association in 1937 before fleeing to the UK in 1939. After the war’s end, Hess was told that the paintings she had attempted to save were destroyed.
Such was not the case: many of them had been looted, including The Judgement of Paris, which was eventually acquired by Wilhelm Hack, a Cologne businessman whose collection later founded the Ludwigshafen museum that bears his name. The works had been on display at the museum since 1979.
The move comes after New York’s Neue Galerie facilitated a similar deal with the heir of the Hess family. A 1914 nude by German Expressionist artist Karl Schmidt-Rottluff had been hanging in the museum’s halls before being returned to its rightful owners, only to later be bought back by the institution for an undisclosed amount.
The Hess family was one of the foremost collectors of German Expressionist art at the time that the Nazis came to power. They had over 4,000 works in their possession, including paintings by Kirchner, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, and Paul Klee.
“[The Judgement of Paris] is a key picture in Kirchner’s oeuvre,” Germany’s culture minister Monika Grütters said in a statement. “It is to be especially welcomed that the city of Ludwigshafen and the Wilhelm Hack Museum succeeded in reaching a fair and just agreement with the heir of the earlier owner,” she concluded.
Grütters also thanked the heir for making the agreement possible through a considerable and “generous compromise” in regards to the artwork’s price.
According to the artnet Price Database, the record for a painting by Kirchner stands at $38 million, achieved in 2006 at Christie’s New York. The record-breaking painting, Berliner Straßenszene (1913-1914), was sold by the same heir—Alfred Hess’s granddaughter Anita Halpins, a British journalist and political figure—after it had been returned from the Brücke Museum by the city of Berlin. The work now hangs at New York’s Neue Galerie.
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