The Sommerguth case
In the year 2000 the attorney Joel Levi of Ramat Gan Israel had been contacted by the Ministry of Finances in Germany regarding the restitution of a painting. He represents the heirs of Alfred and Gertrud Sommerguth, a Jewish couple from Berlin, who fled from Germany during the Holocaust to the United States. The story begins when Alfred Sommerguth, who was born on 23.9.1859 in Magdeburg, started collecting art. He was the director and co owner of the famous tobacco factory Loeser and Wolff, one of the largest if not the largest before the war. In 1920, Mr. Sommerguth sold his shares and became an official in the Ministry of Interior in Berlin in charge of town planning. He held the rank of a Regierungsrat and was prominent within the Berlin Society.
Alfred Sommerguth lived with his wife Gertrude in Berlin and their rich cultural life lead to a remarkable collection of 106 paintings. There were Dutch masterpieces like the Adoration of the Magi as well as paintings on religious subjects and of course those of the artists of the 19th centuries like Adolph von Menzel who was born in 1813 in Breslau, Lingelbach, Max Liebermann and the French impressionist Camille Pissaro.
When the Nazis came into power, the Sommerguths were confronted with the horror of leaving their belongings after listing them all in a property declaration. The art collection was brought to the Lange Auction house and on February 9, 1939, all of the paintings were sold for very low prices. The catalogue states a famous Berlin collection (“eine bekannte Berliner Privatsammlung”). This auctionhouse was aryanized by Mr. Lange from the Jewish owner Paul Graupe and absorbed itself in plundering Jewish valuables during all those years of persecution. Alfred Sommerguth had to draw a “Judenvermoegensabgabe” and paid the special tax levied on those who “desired” to leave Germany. Then the Sommerguths lost their civil rights and all their belongings were confiscated by the Nazi Regime. The couple was able to flee in 1940 shortly before being deported. After an odyssey of travelling through Switzerland to Cuba, the family arrived in New York.
Alfred Sommerguth died there in 1950 and Gertrude died on April 8, 1954. On the 9th of February 2003, 64 years from the day of looting, an agreement was signed between the heirs of the late Alfred Sommerguth and the Federal Republic of Germany determing the restitution of a painting which belonged to this collection. The painting by Franz von Lenbach, oil on carton “Frau Professor Roubaud with Marion Lenbach’s daughter” was in possession of the German Government. At the auction it was sold to the Gallery Almas for the Hitler Museum scheduled to be built in Linz, Austria. Almas paid 3,000.- RM. After the war it was kept by the Federal Republic of Germany as an object belonging to an unknown owner. Mr. Levi who is specialized in restitution matters and the research for lost and looted art, compiled together with Muggenthaler Research, a genealogical institute which is also specialized in Holocaust and lost art research regarding the full documentation and prove of heirship. Now the agreement between the Oberfinanzdirektion for the German government and the attorney representing the heirs to give back the painting, was signed. The agreement stipulates that due to the fact that Alfred Sommerguth was deprived of his property due to persecution, it is returned to his heirs.
Mr. Levi then negotiated with the Museum which held the painting on loan since 1966, i.e. the Darmstaedter Landesmuseum. The museum desired to buy the painting and after careful consideration and evaluation, the painting was sold to the museum for the market price.
This story is similar to 120 family stories of Jewish families living in Germany who were ardent collectors of art and contributed to the cultural life of Germany for more than 60 years since the unification of Germany in 1870. The course of history of two German states did not enable the process of returning looted art until the reunification of 1990. Now, a Co-ordination office for the loss of Cultural Assets was established in Germany and little by little all the art objects are registered on web sites. The international auction houses cooperate and encourage provenance research to be executed by themselves and the museums. Public collections in Germany cooperate with this initiative and so do Governmental agencies in many countries around the world. The notorious galleries are watched carefully by agents and eventually justice, although delayed, is not denied and all of us can close a circle which started in the 19th and is nearing its final stage in the 21st century.
Joel Levi Avgad Building. 5 Jabotinski St., Ramat-Gan 52520. Fax. 972-03-5754257 Tel. 972-03-5754255. E-mail: email@example.com://www.lostart.de/pdf_org.php3?pdf_name=texte%2Fforum%2Fsow8.pdf