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German Museum's Collection Drawing Some Harsh Critics

May 26, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUGSBURG, Germany — Consider the source.

That is the advice and admonishment being directed at the Augsburg Municipal Art Museum, which boasts a collection of priceless Baroque works and Old Masters that would hardly seem within the means of a provincial city off tourism's beaten path.

The 40 paintings gracing three salons of the Schaetzle Palace here were bequests of a local art dealer, Karl Haberstock, who made much of his considerable fortune selling valuables stolen from Jews destined to become Holocaust victims.

"What we have here is a museum that glorifies the most notorious Nazi art dealer," says Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, who has beseeched the local cultural authorities to strip the galleries of grateful references to the Haberstock Foundation.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 27, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Foreign Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Hitler's birthplace--A story in Friday's Times incorrectly implied the location of Adolf Hitler's birth. It was the Austrian town of Braunau.

At the very least, says Steinberg, the city that has reaped the fruit of Haberstock's dubious labors should provide a frame of reference for visitors by making them aware of the dark past of the museum's late patron.

Haberstock, who died in 1956 and was never punished by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal because he testified against other Nazi dealers, was best known for having amassed the Linz Collection, a vast trove of European paintings and sculpture with which Adolf Hitler planned to adorn a huge museum in the city of his birth. Some of the 13,000 artworks in the Linz Collection are now the subjects of restitution efforts by Holocaust survivors or their heirs.

None of the Italian, Flemish and German works in the Haberstock collection in this Bavarian city have been claimed by dispossessed victims of the Nazis.

One professor of art history who has written two books about the Third Reich's trade in looted and ill-gotten art has been trying for four years--without success--to gain access to the Augsburg archives.

"In the first instance, they simply said no due to Datenschutz," says Jonathan Petropoulos of Claremont McKenna College, referring to Germany's elaborate network of privacy protection laws. "In the second letter, they stonewalled me, saying they were still waiting for permission from the municipal authorities."

Petropoulos says he was appalled to discover that the museum was displaying a bust of Haberstock in its entrance and a 1912 painting of the dealer in an upstairs gallery--with nothing to indicate the benefactor's role as Hitler's favorite fence.

Neither the painting nor the bust is currently on display at the museum, and its curator, Bjorn Kommer, insists that there has never been a painting of Haberstock on the premises since he came to work here in 1990. He suggests that Petropoulos must have mistaken the subjects in portraits of the last Baron von Schaetzle and his wife now hanging in the entrance in tribute to the nobles who bequeathed their Baroque palace to the city in 1955.

Petropoulos has yet to be granted access to the Augsburg records of the Nazi native son, and the official in charge of the Haberstock Foundation assets is vague about the prospects of opening the archives to outside researchers any time soon.

"We agree there should be a more thorough examination, and we are pursuing that ourselves," says Ekkehard Gesler, cultural affairs advisor for Augsburg.

But he rejects as unnecessary and legally complex the World Jewish Congress' call for stripping the displayed works of the notation that they are gifts from the Haberstock Foundation.

The issue currently is at a standoff, but the congress' Steinberg warns that those seeking an appropriate accounting for the crimes of the Nazis will not abide an offensive status quo.

"We've always believed that there must be both moral and material restitution," Steinberg says. "Material restitution is simple--the return of property to its rightful owners. But moral restitution is confronting the past honestly, and in Augsburg, the most notorious of Nazi art dealers still has a place of honor."

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