Sunday, November 12, 2006
38 million Reasons For Brit Communist to Become a Capitalist
Red in the black: British Communist nets £20m from 'Nazi theft' painting
By Caroline Davies
Last Updated: 2:11am GMT 11/11/2006
A leading British communist is £20 million/$38 million richer after the controversial sale of an important Expressionist painting given to her under Germany's Nazi restitution laws.
Anita Halpin, 62, a stalwart Left-winger and chairman of the Communist Party of Britain, was given Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 1913 Berliner Strassenszene (Berlin street scene) by the Berlin state senate in July.
The move followed two years of secret negotiations after claims that it was stolen from her Jewish grandparents by the Gestapo in 1936.
The painting had hung in Berlin's Brücke Museum for 26 years and formed the cornerstone of its Expressionist collection.
After frenzied bidding at Christie's Manhattan auction room this week, it was sold for £20.5 million to the Neue Galerie in New York. Attempts to keep in it Berlin had failed through lack of money.
Mrs Halpin, who is also treasurer of the National Union of Journalists and sits on the TUC general council, was unwilling to discuss the sale yesterday. She also declined to comment on whether she would be pursuing claims for other paintings from the large collection said to have been taken from her grandparents, Alfred and Tekla Hess, the owners of a shoe factory.
Asked what she would do with the windfall, Mrs Halpin, of Bow, east London, replied: "It's too early to call, let's leave it at that."
But the return of the painting to the Hess family heir and its subsequent sale have provoked a fierce restitution debate.
Some German politicians and art professionals have claimed that the painting, which has been described as one of Kirchner's most important works, may not have been Nazi-looted art. They say it was sold willingly by the Hess family to Carl Hagemann, an influential Frankfurt collector, in 1936-37 after the Hess shoe factory went bankrupt in 1929.
They also argue that not enough research into the painting had been done before the Berlin senate agreed to return it. Passions run high in Berlin because the painting is strongly connected to the city and it had been bought in good faith for the Brücke Museum using public funds.
However, the lawyers representing Mrs Halpin's interests, Peter Schink from Schink & Studzinski in Germany and David J Rowland from Rowland & Associates in New York, have denied the claims.
They say that Alfred Hess, his wife and their son Hans, a once wealthy Jewish family who lived in Erfurt, Germany, built up one of the most comprehensive collections of German Expressionist art, consisting of around 4,000 works, including some 80 paintings by the premier artists of the Expressionist period in Germany.
"Alfred Hess died in late 1931. Following the rise of Hitler in 1933, the Hess family was eventually forced to leave Germany," they said when the painting was returned to Mrs Halpin.
Mrs Halpin's father, Hans, lost his job at the Ullstein publishing house in Berlin when it fired its Jewish employees, then fled to Paris and later to London. His mother moved to Bavaria where she was questioned by Gestapo agents about the whereabouts of the Hess collection.
The lawyers have produced an affidavit signed by Tekla Hess in 1958 in which she stated that she had been coerced under threat by the Gestapo to return seven pictures in the Hess collection from the Swiss gallery where they were being kept to Germany.
The collection was broken up and many other works remain lost. In the 1960s Hans Hess was found to be a Nazi persecutee and awarded 75,000 German marks for the loss of the collection — a mere fraction of its worth but the largest amount that could be awarded at that time.
Negotiations to return the painting to his daughter began in September 2004. In their statement, the lawyers said the Hess family commended Berlin for "its courage in making a principled and correct decision" to return the painting. The city of Berlin "correctly determined that the Kirchner painting was lost due to Nazi persecution".
They added: "The matter was thoroughly researched and all relevant archives were consulted.
"The Hess heirs and the city of Berlin tried during their negotiations to reach an agreement to keep the painting in Berlin. However, they were not able to do so due to financial constraints."
Art Hostage can think of 38 million reasons for this lady to become a little more pragmatic in her political thoughts !!