18 August 2013

Twice plundered: two paintings by forgotten artist Ilona Singer-Weinberger

by Misha Sidenberg, Jewish Museum of Prague, Czech Republic

Man in a Brown Suit (also known as Man with a Cigarette, 1928, oil on canvas, c. 55 x 46.5 cm, signed and dated LR: Ilona Singer / 1928) by an unjustly forgotten artist Ilona Singer-Weinberger (1905-1944/1945), adherent of the New Objectivity and a graduate of the "Vereignete Staatschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst" in Berlin where she studied between 1923-1925, was included to the Prague Jewish Museum’s collection on July 18, 1944.

"Main in a Brown Suit"
Source: Google
Property card for "Man in a Brown Suit"
Source: Jewish Museum, Prague
Like so many other objects, it had come from the "Treuhandstelle-Prag" depot, a “central collecting point” for property left behind by Jewish deportees from Prague and its immediate vicinity (the so-called Oberlandrat Prag) and subsequently “liquidated.” Provenance clues available on the paintings (see the transport number Dh 188 on the stretcher) confirm that the painting was confiscated from the private possession of Ilona Singer’s sister, Margit Hahn (1902-1944).  “Dh 188” is the number under which Margit was registered for a transport to the Theresienstadt Ghetto (German for Terezín, a transit concentration camp for Jews, located roughly 30 miles northwest of Prague).

Wood Framing
Source: Google
Margit, almost three years Ilona’s senior, a deaf-mute woman of stunning beauty, had a single child, Jan (1926-1944/45). After several repeatedly failed attempts to obtain an immigration visa to Shanghai, Margit and Jan Hahn found themselves trapped in Prague from where they were deported to Theresienstadt in July 1943. Once there, they joined Ilona and her husband Felix who had been brought there earlier that year in January from the town of Hodonín in Southern Moravia. The whole family, including Emilia, the mother of Margit and Ilona, née Rindler, and Felix’s parents, was murdered “nach dem Osten [in the East].” Emilia had already been deported to Treblinka in 1942. The rest of the family members were sent to Auschwitz. None survived the war. Five of Ilona’s paintings remain unclaimed in the collection of the Prague Jewish Museum. Three of those works had been confiscated from Ilona’s sister Margit, the two others from private owners. Two of the three paintings originally owned by Margit went mysteriously missing after 1967, only to resurface at the Dorotheum Prague auction house in 2008 and 2009.

The Man with a Cigarette was sold in 2008 despite protests by the Jewish Museum in Prague, which demanded its withdrawal from sale. According to the public auction records, the painting changed hands one more time in 2010, at an auction organized by Hampel Auction House in Munich.

A Boy with a Teddy Bear
Source: Google
The second painting, A Boy with a Teddy Bear, which had been offered for sale at the Dorotheum Prag in May 2009, was withdrawn from sale as a result of persistent efforts by the Prague Jewish Museum to stop the sale. However, due to insufficient legislation in the Czech Republic, the painting was returned to the consignor (the same person who only eight months earlier had sold the Man with a Cigarette).

Both paintings, the Man with a Cigarette and the Boy with a Teddy Bear, were stolen from the Jewish Museum in Prague after 1967 under dubious circumstances. The two stolen paintings remained in private hands until 2008 and 2009 respectively. Then they were offered for sale at Dorotheum Prague. At least one of the paintings –Portrait of a Man with a Cigarette – was sold even though the auctioneers knew that it had been confiscated from its rightful owner during the Holocaust. As for the Boy with a Teddy Bear, its present whereabouts are unknown.

Advice to the current owner(s) of the above-described two works by Ilona Singer: they are cultural assets looted during the Holocaust. They must be returned to the Jewish Museum in Prague so that it can facilitate their restitution to their rightful owners.

Ilona Singer-Weinberger (1905-1944/1945)
Boy with a Teddy Bear, 1927
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm
Signed and dated LR: Ilona Singer, 1927


1927 (?) – 1943 – private collection of Margit Hahn (1902-1944), sister of the artist who was deported in 1943 from Prague to the ghetto of Theresienstadt and subsequently to Auschwitz where she was murdered along with her son and the most of her family. (The transport number in the war-time Prague Jewish Museum catalogue card is mistyped from Dh 188 to Eh 188).

July 18, 1944 – until at least 1967 – collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague

Missing since 1967 (or a later date)

In May 2009 put for an auction at Dorotheum Prague, Czech Republic, withdrawn from sale, present whereabouts unknown
Property card for "Boy with a Teddy Bear"
Source: Jewish Museum, Prague