08 August 2018

MoMA's dalliances with the two portraits of Max Hermann Neisse by Georg Grosz

by Marc Masurovsky

 "Portrait of Max Hermann Neisse", by Georg Grosz, 1925

In April 2009, the heirs of the German expressionist artist, Georg Grosz, filed an art restitution lawsuit against the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, claiming that three paintings by Grosz held in MoMA's collection since the 1950s rightfully belonged to Georg Grosz and his heirs. The outcome of the suit yielded no restitution to the Grosz family despite an offer by MoMA to share the paintings in a co-ownership deal.

A German-born art dealer named Curt Valentin had sold to MoMA one of those paintings, Grosz’s “Portrait of Max Hermann Neisse”, in 1952; this was the second version dated 1927, which Grosz had produced of the celebrated Polish-born German writer, Max Hermann Neisse.

However, as early as 1948, Alfred Barr, the iconic director of MoMA at the time of the 1952 purchase, had had his eyes on the first version that Grosz had painted in 1925 of Max Hermann Neisse. That painting had graced the walls of the Städtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim, Germany, until the Nazi government ordered its de-accession as a “degenerate [entartete]” painting which National Socialist aesthetic principles. After its de-accession, the Mannheim painting of Max Hermann Neisse was eventually sold in the late 1930s to Kurt Sachs, a private collector from Hamburg.Barr wrote about the 1925 Grosz portrait to Theodore Heinrich, then chief of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point in Germany, a trained art historian who eventually went on to lead several museums in the United States and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. Barr had been tipped off of its existence by Charles Parkhurst, another American cultural advisor with US forces in Germany, also referred to as a “monuments man”. Parkhurst had informed Heinrich on February 4, 1948, that Barr would write to him about “a painting for sale formerly in the Kunsthalle, Mannheim.” Apparently, the go-between offering the painting was an “American bookseller” based in Paris, France. This bookseller swore up and down to Barr that the provenance of the Grosz painting was above reproach. [Editor's note: this bookseller might be none other than Heinz Berggruen, who had opened a bookshop on the Left Bank Paris right after its liberation in late August 1944. He had extensive art dealing contacts in Germany and traveled regularly between Paris and the US zone of occupation.].

Barr, on the other hand, indicated to Heinrich that “we would like very much to have this picture in the Collection [of MoMA ] but don’t want to buy anything of which the ownership is not entirely certain.”
Barr to Heinrich, February 9, 1948
Heinrich chose not to reply to Barr in writing but instead met with him in New York on February 27, 1948, at which time he gave him his opinion about this possible acquisition.
 Note by Heinrich about Mannheim Grosz painting

The main concern that Barr had regarding the Mannheim Grosz portrait was that the Mannheim Kunsthalle was aggressively seeking the restitution of the 584 works that it had been forced to de-accession during the Nazi years. Each Western zone of occupation of Germany---French, British, and American—had adopted a different stance regarding the recognition of German museums’ ability to recover their ‘de-accessioned’ properties. According to Heinrich, the Americans had not put forth an official position for or against such claims by German museums, although they ended up ruling in favor of the Nazi de-accession laws, thus striking down with one fell swoop any hope for German museums in their jurisdiction to recover de-accessioned works. However, the French had reacted favorably to Mannheim’s claim for a painting found in private hands in their zone of occupation, thus encouraging the director of the Mannheim Kunsthalle to pursue other claims in the Western Allied zones of occupation of Germany. On the other hand, German art dealers were displeased at the behavior of the German museums whose claims for de-accessioned “degenerate works” were impeding their chance of selling them on behalf of private art collectors like Kurt Sachs who had acquired them after museums had been forced to disgorge them.

In August 1949, Barr offered to buy the painting and resell it to Mannheim "at cost". He sympathized with Mannheim's year-long battle to recover the painting from Sachs and his dealer, Ernst Hauswedell.
Barr to Heinrich, August 19, 1949

Hauswedell argued virulently against Mannheim's claim in a letter to Barr dated September 26, 1949, where he derided the museum’s claim.
Hauswedell to Barr, September 1949

In the end, Mannheim succeeded in reintegrating the Grosz portrait in its permanent collection after having lost it to Nazi cultural policies in 1938. Whether or not this recovery resulted from Barr's intercession is not known.

Three years later, Barr settled on the second version of “Portrait of Max Hermann Neisse” by Georg Grosz, a decision that came back to haunt MoMA 50 years later.

Archival sources: 

Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Theodore Heinrich Records, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada