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Tracking Down Looted Art

Scholars at the Art History Department are researching and reconstructing the collection of entrepreneur Abraham Adelsberger. Part of it was pledged to banks during the global economic crisis and broken up during the Nazi period.

Jul 25, 2019

Jupiter approaches the sleeping Antiope. The 1612 painting by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius is on display at the National Gallery in London.

Jupiter approaches the sleeping Antiope. The 1612 painting by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius is on display at the National Gallery in London.
Image Credit: AKG Images

In just a moment, the sleeper will be overcome with desire, and Jupiter, in the form of a satyr – half man, half goat – will seduce the young woman, siring twins in the process. He has stealthily approached Antiope. In his hand is a peach, a symbol of fertility. The story, recounted by Homer in the Odyssey and by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, has inspired many painters: Rembrandt and Antonio da Corregio, Watteau, Ingres, and Titian – and Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius.

His painting Jupiter and Antiope, which features near life-size figures, has been hanging in room 24 on the second floor of the National Gallery, in London, since 2011. For many years before that, it was in the possession of the Instituut Collectie Nederland, a state institution that was supposed to return looted art after World War II. “But it wasn’t until 2007 that there was an indication that an investigation of this painting’s provenance was under way,” says Yana Slavova, who will be studying the work of art as part of a new project launched by Freie Universität Berlin.

Researchers Have to Evaluate 6,000 Handwritten Pages about the Collection

The painting was part of the art collection of Abraham Adelsberger (1863–1940), a Jewish toy manufacturer. The effort to reconstruct that collection is receiving support from the German Lost Art Foundation as a flagship example. The researchers were delighted to get the chance to study and reconstruct another collection, after the Mosse Art Research Initiative (see box below), says Meike Hoffmann, the coordinator in charge of the project at Professor Klaus Krüger’s division of the Art History Department of Freie Universität. “The success of our provenance research is based first and foremost on a good network. We hope that thanks to projects like these, we will be able to further spur the entire field of research at our department.”

Adelsberger had grown prosperous as a hop merchant in the late 19th century, selling hops to beer makers. In 1897, he moved to Nuremberg, where he acquired the Fischer & Co. tin toy factory. “This is probably the period when his collection arose as well,” Slavova says. “He is likely to have bought Jupiter and Antiope in Switzerland before 1920.”

After World War I, the tin toy business flourished at first. Adelsberger built himself a villa in town, where it is likely that large parts of his collection were on display. “We know from a catalog from 1925 that at that time, he had already bought almost 200 paintings, including Peter Paul Rubens’s Landscape with Cows and works by Carl Spitzweg, Édouard Manet, and Adolph von Menzel. There were also an estimated 500 art objects, such as Meissen porcelain, vases, and furniture, along with just as many graphic pieces,” Slavova says. Of those paintings, the whereabouts of only seven are known today. Another problem arose, too: The catalog only contains descriptions of the objects. There aren’t any photos.

That means the first step in reconstructing the collection is to identify the art objects. Then the researcher will have to clarify the provenance of each and every item on display: Where did Adelsberger get the piece? To whom did he resell it? Where is it located today?

“Our research is based on an agreement with the cooperation partners,” says Hoffmann. “They are obligated to provide us with all of the materials in their possession and to accept our neutral status. After all, our goal is research, not restitution.” This role, she says, also helps to facilitate discussion between heirs and current owners later on. “Both sides know that we are not pursuing any economic interests of our own, so they trust the results of our work.”

Slavova did research on Adelsberger’s art collection as part of her master’s thesis as well, and she has already viewed a wealth of materials. Just recently, 6,000 pages of documentation about the art collection, most of it handwritten, also emerged at an archive in Amsterdam. “We suspect this was a kind of family archive, but it needs to be viewed and evaluated first at this point,” says Slavova, who is also hoping to find sources in the archives of Dresdner Bank.

During the global economic crisis, Adelsberger had pledged large parts of a collection to a financial institution called Darmstädter und Nationalbank, which merged with Dresdner Bank in 1931, during the banking crisis. Adelsberger had already put some parts of the collection up for sale at auctions in Berlin and Munich in 1930, but apparently they did not sell.

“We suspect Adelsberger never recovered from the dislocations of the global economic crisis,” Slavova says. His company started posting losses as early as 1929, and when the Nazis came to power, Adelsberger started selling off the company’s assets. In 1937, the regime expropriated his villa, and in 1933 and 1939, objects from his collection appeared in auctions held by the Lempertz auction house in Cologne.

Adelsberger managed to take Jupiter and Antiope along to Amsterdam when he fled to the Netherlands, in 1939. His heirs probably sold the painting, under pressure from the Nazis, to art dealer Dirk Albert Hoogendijk in February 1941, with Hoogendijk then reselling the work for ten times the price he had paid to Walter Andreas Hofer, Hermann Göring’s purchasing agent in the Netherlands.

“The picture seems to have gone first to the Luftwaffe’s Kurfürst bunker in Wildpark-West near Potsdam, and then, in January 1945, it was shipped to Berchtesgaden with other works to protect them from aerial attacks. Once there, it was put in storage and then found by the Americans after the war and ultimately returned to the Netherlands,” Slavova explains.

It was not until 2007 that Adelsberger’s heirs stumbled upon the painting from their ancestor’s collection, at the Frans Hals Museum in the Dutch city of Haarlem. After a detailed investigation of the case, the painting was returned to them in March 2009. The heirs auctioned it off at Sotheby’s in New York in 2010. The new private owner has provided it to the National Gallery on loan.

This text originally appeared in German on June 8, 2019, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.

Further Information

Mosse Art Research Initiative

The collection of Berlin publisher and patron Rudolf Mosse (1843–1920) included thousands of paintings, sculptures, craft objects, books, and antiques. Almost 100 years after the death of the Jewish art collector, the collection is being reconstructed within the Mosse Art Research Initiative (MARI), founded in 2017 by the Mosse heirs and Freie Universität Berlin.

For the first time German institutions are cooperating with descendants of victims of racial persecution during the Nazi regime in a public-private partnership. The initiative came from the Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. In addition, numerous museums and institutions are involved in the research.

The research findings are being published in an online-portal hosted by Freie Universität: www.mari-portal.de