The rare violin tests Germany’s commitment to atonement for its Nazi past

BERLIN – Nobody knows why Felix Hildesheimer, a Jewish instrument dealer, bought a precious violin made by the master of Cremonese Giuseppe Guarnieri in a store in Stuttgart, Germany in January 1938. His private shop lost its non-Jewish customers because of the Nazi provinces, and his two daughters fled the country soon after Short. His grandchildren say it is possible that Hildesheimer was hoping to be able to sell violins in Australia, as he and his wife Helen planned to build a new life with their youngest daughter.

But the couple’s attempts to obtain an Australian visa failed, and Hildesheimer himself was killed in August 1939. More than 80 years later, his 300-year-old violin – worth nearly $ 185,000 – is at the center of a dispute threatening to undermine Germany. The obligation to return items that were looted by the Nazis.

Governmental Advisory Committee on the Return of Cultural Property Looted by the Nazis Set in 2016 It is almost certain that Hildesheimer had sold the violin under duress or had been seized by the Nazis after his death. In the first case involving a musical instrument, the committee recommended that its current owner, the Franz Hoffmann and Sophie Hagmann Foundation, a music education organization, pay compensation to the merchant’s descendants of 100,000 euros, about $ 121,000; In return, the foundation could keep the instrument it planned on loaning to gifted violin students.

But the foundation is refusing to pay. After she first said she couldn’t raise money, she is She now questions the commission’s decision. In a statement released on January 20, the foundation said that “current information” indicated that Hildesheimer was not forced to give up his job until 1939, instead of 1937, as was previously believed. “We must assume that the violin was sold as a retail product in his music store,” the statement added.

Last week, the advisory panel ran out of patience and issued a public statement aimed at increasing pressure on the Hagman Foundation to comply with its recommendation.

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“The two sides agreed on this as a fair and just solution,” the statement said, accusing the institution of not showing “a serious commitment to comply with the committee’s recommendation.” The committee said that efforts to challenge the recommendation – four years after its issuance – by suggesting that the Jewish merchant sold violins under completely normal conditions, means that “the basis does not only contradict existing principles regarding the return of artworks looted by the Nazis.” It also ignores accepted facts about life in Nazi Germany.

The foundation’s refusal to pay threatens the system for handling looted art claims from the Nazis that have existed for nearly two decades and led to the return of works from public museums, and in 2019, two paintings from the German government’s art collection. .

Lawmakers formed the committee in 2003, after ratifying the Washington Principles, an international treaty in 1998 that calls for “just and fair” solutions for prewar owners and their heirs whose artwork had been confiscated by the Nazis. Families of Jews whose property has been confiscated rarely succeed in recovering looted cultural property in German courts, due to statutes of limitations and rules protecting bona fide buyers of stolen goods. So the advisory committee, which separates victims of pillage from the owners of contested cultural property, is often the only recourse for claimants.

But the commission is not a court and does not have the legal powers to implement its recommendations, Hans-Jürgen Papier, the committee’s chairman and former president of the German Constitutional Court, explained in an interview.

Instead, it has the job of mediator, he said. He added, “We have so far been able to rely on public institutions to submit to the authority’s operations and implement its recommendations.” “If it doesn’t work anymore, that’s unacceptable from our point of view.”

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After the purchase of Hildesheimer, Guarneri violin pieces disappeared until 1974, when they reappeared in a store in Cologne, western Germany, and were bought by violinist Sophie Hagemann. She passed away in 2010, inheriting her from the foundation she set up to promote the work of her composer husband and support young musicians.

The Hagman Foundation, which has since restored the violin, began investigating its previous ownership after her death. Upon noting the source gap from 1938 to 1974, the tool registered in the German government’s database of cultural property looted from the Nazis, hoping to find more information about the Hildesheimer family. An American journalist tracked down the descendants of the music dealer and the foundation agreed to refer the case to the advisory committee.

When the committee ruled, in 2016, that the violin was likely to have been forcibly sold, or seized after Hildesheimer’s death, the Hagman Foundation accepted its terms and also promised that the students it loaned to the violin would hold regular concerts in Hildesheimer. memory.

But the advisory committee’s statement last week said it had not revealed a “serious will” on the part of the foundation to raise compensation of 100,000 euros. The commission said the foundation’s continued description of Guarneri as a “tool of understanding” on its website was “particularly inappropriate”, given its refusal to pay heirs.

The foundation’s president, Fabian Kern, refused to be interviewed, but released a statement saying that the foundation had “made countless efforts over several years to implement the committee’s recommendation.”

David Sand, a grandson of Hildesheimer in California, said in a phone interview that the family was “very resilient and even offered to help the foundation raise money via emails back and forth for the past four years”.

He added, “If the committee can be challenged without consequences, I do not see how these issues can be dealt with in the future.”

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Papier, the committee chair, said he hoped the committee’s decision to inform the media about the institution’s non-compliance would raise awareness among lawmakers and the public of the issues at hand. He said that while the Hagmann Foundation is a private entity, it has close links with the Nuremberg University of Music, which is owned by the German state of Bavaria.

He said he had already sought support from the Bavarian government, “but in the end nothing happened. Perhaps some political pressure will emerge to ensure the implementation of this settlement, which was considered by all concerned as fair and just.”

But a spokeswoman for the Bavarian Ministry of Culture said it was “up to the private enterprise to process the recommendations of the advisory committee. The state of Bavaria has no legal basis for influencing private owners”.

A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry of Culture echoed these sentiments. He said the ministry had no tools available to compel a private institution to implement the committee’s recommendation.

All this leaves the committee “standing up and dry,” said Stefan Klingen, art historian at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich.

“The only options before the committee are to hope that the politicians somehow get them out of this mess, or they quit en masse,” Klingen said. This puts the future of the commission on the edge of an abyss. If there is no political support, the German take-back policy has reached the end of the line. “

He added, “If the heirs do not trust the implementation of the commission’s recommendations, then why do they raise their cases to it?”

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