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



BERLIN – No one knows why Felix Hildesheimer, a Jewish music merchant, bought a precious violin built by Cremonese master Giuseppe Guarneri at a store in Stuttgart, Germany, in January 1938. His own store has lost customers who are not. because of the Nazi boycotts, and his two daughters fled the country shortly after. His grandchildren say Hildesheimer may have hoped to sell the violin in Australia, where he and his wife Helen planned to build a new life with their younger 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 ̵

1; worth about $ 185,000 – was at the center of a dispute that threatened to undermine the German a commitment to return sites looted by the Nazis.

The government’s advisory commission on the return of looted Nazi cultural property determined in 2016 that the violin was almost certainly either sold by Hildesheimer under duress or confiscated by the Nazis after his death. In its first case concerning a musical instrument, the commission recommended that the current owner, the Franz Hoffmann Foundation and Sophie Hagemann, a music education organization, pay the dealer’s grandchildren compensation of € 100,000, about $ 121,000; in return, the foundation may retain the instrument it plans to lend to talented violin students.

But the foundation refuses to pay. After declaring for the first time that he could not raise the funds, he now questions the committee’s decision. In a statement on January 20, the foundation said “current information” suggested that Hildesheimer was forced to give up his business only in 1939, instead of 1937, as previously thought. 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 Committee lost patience and issued a public statement aimed at stepping up pressure on the Hagemann Foundation to comply with its recommendation.

“Both sides accepted this as a fair and just decision,” the statement said, accusing the foundation of not showing a “serious commitment to comply with the commission’s recommendation.” Efforts to challenge the recommendation – four years after it was issued – assuming the Jewish dealer sold the violin on perfectly normal terms means “the foundation does not simply contradict existing principles of restitution of Nazi-looted art,” the commission said. “It also ignores the accepted facts about life in Nazi Germany.”

The foundation’s refusal to pay threatens the Nazi arts looting system, which has existed for nearly two decades and led to the restitution of works by public museums, and in 2019 two paintings from the German government’s own art collection.

Lawmakers set up the commission in 2003, after approving the Washington Principles, a 1998 international agreement calling for “fair and just” decisions for pre-war owners and their heirs, whose art was confiscated by the Nazis. The families of Jews whose belongings have been expropriated rarely manage to restore looted cultural property in German courts due to antiquities and rules that protect bona fide buyers of stolen goods. Thus, the Advisory Commission, which arbitrates between victims of looting and holders of disputed cultural property, is often the only right of claimants.

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

“Instead, he acts as an intermediary,” he said. “So far, we have been able to rely on public institutions to comply with the commission’s processes and implement its recommendations,” he added. “If that doesn’t work anymore, it’s unacceptable from our point of view.”

After Hildesheimer’s purchase, the songs of the Guarneri violin disappeared until 1974, when it reappeared in a store in Cologne, West Germany, and was purchased by violinist Sophie Hagemann. She died in 2010, bequeathing it to the foundation she had set up to promote her husband’s work as a composer and to support young musicians.

The Hagemann Foundation, which has since restored the violin, is beginning to investigate its previous possession after her death. Noting the gap of origin from 1938 to 1974, she registered the instrument in the German government database of cultural property looted by the Nazis, hoping to find more information about the Hildesheimer family. An American journalist tracked down the music trader’s grandchildren and the foundation agreed to turn the case over to the Advisory Committee.

When the commission ruled in 2016 that the violin would probably be sold under duress or confiscated after Hildesheimer’s death, the Hagemann Foundation accepted its terms and also promised that the students to whom it gave the violin would give regular Hildesheimer concerts.

But a statement from the Advisory Committee last week said it had not found “serious will” on the part of the foundation to collect the 100,000-euro compensation. The Guarneri Foundation’s ongoing description of the violin foundation as a “tool for understanding” on its website is “particularly inappropriate,” the commission said, refusing to pay the heirs.

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

David Sand, the California-based grandson of Hildesheimer, said in a telephone interview that the family has been “very responsive and has even offered help to the foundation to raise funds via email over the past four years.”

“If the commission can be opposed without consequences, I do not see how these cases can be dealt with in the future,” he added.

Papier, the committee’s chairman, said he hoped the commission’s decision to tell the media about the non-compliance with the foundation would raise awareness among lawmakers and the public about the issues in question. Although the Hagemann Foundation is a private organization, 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. There may be some political pressure to ensure that this agreement, which is considered by all involved to be fair and just, is finally implemented. “

But a spokesman for the Bavarian Ministry of Culture said that “the private foundation must respond to the recommendations of the Advisory Committee. The state of Bavaria has no legal basis to influence private owners. “

A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry of Culture echoed these sentiments. The ministry does not have the “tools available to force a private foundation to implement the commission’s recommendation,” he said.

All this leaves the commission “high and dry,” said Stefan Klingen, an art historian at the Central Institute of Art History in Munich.

“The commission’s only options are to hope that politicians will somehow get them out of this mess or resign en masse,” Klingen said. “It simply came to our notice then. If there is no political support, then German restitution policy has come to an end. “

“If the heirs cannot have faith in the implementation of the commission’s recommendations,” he added, “then why would they consider their cases?”


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