Paul Klee, Swamp Legend, 1919. Photo: Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München

Twenty-Six-Year Legal Dispute over Nazi-Looted Klee Masterpiece Is Settled

The longest-running German legal battle over Nazi-looted art has finally come to an end. On Wednesday, July 26, the city of Munich settled with the family of German art historians Sophie Lissitzky and Paul Küppers, from whom a Paul Klee masterpiece was seized by the Nazis during World War II, Catherine Hickley of the New York Times reports.

“It’s a scandal that it has taken so long, and a disgrace that we had no alternative to going to court,” said Gunnar Schnabel, a lawyer for the heirs, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers.

City officials had argued that Klee’s Swamp Legend, 1919, belonged at Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum for decades, but finally succumbed to political pressure and agreed to reimburse the heirs of Sophie Lissitzky and Paul Küppers, who are believed to have acquired the painting directly from the artist, by paying them a sum equal to the piece’s market value.

“Through the story of this painting over the last twenty-six years, we can trace the change of mentality not just in the museums, but also in the legal approach, the way we think about law and justice,” Matthias Mühling, the director of the Lenbachhaus, said. “Law and justice are not always the same thing. This settlement is a very important achievement for our museum. This is not just an important painting by Paul Klee, it contains the whole history of the twentieth century.”

Another work in the museum is also currently at the heart of a lawsuit that was filed in March. The heirs of Jewish dealer Alfred Flechtheim are suing the Bavarian regional government for the return of eight paintings including Wassily Kandinsky’s Colorful Life, 1907, which they claim was taken by the Nazi Party.

While Anne Webber, cochair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, says that Bavaria still has “a great deal to do there in terms of transparency, provenance research and restitution,” the culture ministry assured the public after it returned a Nazi-looted work to its rightful owners last week that it is committed to “vigorous provenance research with the goal of rectifying injustices of the Nazi era.”