10 Apr 2020

On the occasion of the International Day of Provenance Research, Lena Lehmann, research assistant in the provenance research team of the Kunstmuseum Basel, presents one of her cases: August Macke's drawing "Landscape with Children and Goats".

The watercolour and coloured pencil drawing by August Macke from 1913 radiates the power of elementary colours. It shows a landscape enlivened by children and animals, which almost dissolves into geometric forms. One of my favourite works on paper – but that is not what this text is about. Today I would like to tell you the story of this drawing. Or at least the part of the story that has revealed itself to me so far.

For almost exactly one year now, as provenance researcher at the Kunstmuseum Basel, I have been intensively engaged in researching the drawings that entered the collection of the Kupferstichkabinett between 1933 and 1945. Within this framework, some 2500 works are being examined for their provenance. To this end, the first step is to clarify how and by whom a work found its way into our collection. In most cases, this question can be answered relatively quickly with the help of the museum's own inventory books. The case of our drawing by August Macke was not quite so simple: according to the inventory book, it was acquired from the Landesmuseum Hannover in 1941 for 150 Swiss francs.

A first assumption

A work by a German artist, which was acquired directly from a German museum during the Nazi rule, is remarkable. For it is part of the basic principle of a museum not to resell any works, but to make them available to the widest possible public in a direct or indirect way. Add to this the fact that August Macke is a representative of Expressionism and thus of an art movement that was ostracized as "degenerate" by the National Socialists. The assumption is likely that this was not a direct purchase, but that the drawing, like thousands of other works of art, was taken from German museums and collections at the behest of the "Führer" for the purpose of "cultural cleansing". The "Law on the Confiscation of Products of Degenerate Art" passed in May 1938, retroactively legitimized the confiscation of works of art without compensation in favor of the German Reich. This law laid the foundation for the sale of the works of art – now under the legal title of property of the German Reich.

"Degenerate art" confiscation inventory

In order to verify this assumption, I searched the database of the Freie Universität of Berlin for the confiscation inventory "Degenerate Art" for our drawing by August Macke. The online tool is based on the inventory lists of the confiscated works which are still available today. The information is made accessible to every user via a search function. And indeed, our drawing could be found in the database. As noted in our inventory book, it originated from the Landesmuseum Hannover. But the database reveals another portion of the story: the drawing was confiscated from the museum on August 17, 1937 by the Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, Berlin. In August 1938 the drawing was stored in the depot at Schönhausen Palace. All confiscated works of art that could potentially be sold or exchanged abroad were brought there.

From Berlin to Basel

According to a purchase contract found in the Federal Archive in Berlin, the Freie Universität of Berlin was able to prove that the drawing was sold to Hildebrand Gurlitt for 40 Swiss francs on May 22, 1940. Thus, one year before the drawing entered the collection of the Kupferstichkabinett Basel, it was acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the four art dealers who had been commissioned to sell or exchange the confiscated works of "Degenerate Art" abroad as part of the "exploitation campaign". This is how, for example, the painting "Animal Fates" by Franz Marc entered the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1939 (see video contribution by Eva Reifert).

However, the sale of the drawing to the Kunstmuseum Basel did not ultimately happen through Gurlitt himself. This was shown by research in the museum's own archive. There the purchase receipt for the drawing was found, in which Hans Gessner acknowledges the amount received. Hans Gessner was a Swiss sculptor and art dealer and a close friend of Swiss artist Karl Ballmer. They knew each other from Hamburg, and both returned to Switzerland in 1939. Ballmer was also a friend of Gurlitt's. It is therefore quite possible that Gurlitt and Gessner also knew each other. Whether Gessner acted as intermediary or whether the drawing was in his possession for a short period of time is only of marginal importance. In any case, Gurlitt's connection to the Kunstmuseum Basel via Gessner is very plausible.

The drawing by August Macke thus fell out of favour with the National Socialists, but it did not fall victim to them. The losses that the German museums had to bear under the "Degenerate Art Campaign" were great. However, they occurred under the "Law on the Confiscation of Degenerate Art Products", which was passed by the German Reich itself in 1938 and which the Allies regarded as legally legitimate after the war – a fact still valid today. The sale abroad was ultimately a rescue from a fate that many works suffered under the stigma of "degeneration": they were burned and are no longer accessible to posterity today.

This is the part of the history of the drawing that I have been able to determine so far. An open question leads me back to the Landesmuseum Hannover in 1937, because the decisive factor in this case is the status of the drawing at the Landesmuseum Hannover. Was the museum actually the owner of the drawing at the time of confiscation, or was the drawing merely on loan or deposited at the wrong place at the wrong time? Whether the confiscation by the German Reich was actually lawful ultimately depends on who actually owned the drawing at the time. This remains a crucial question that still needs to be clarified.

Written by: Lena Lehmann, Research assistant, Provenance Research Kunstmuseum Basel