The private art collection Kunstsammlung Rudolf-August Oetker GmbH has returned a painting by Carl Spitzweg to the heir of the Jewish collector Leo Bendel, who was killed by the Nazis at the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, during World War II.
The restituted painting, entitled Der Hexenmeister (also known as Sorcerer and Dragon), followed international efforts initiated by Bielefeld, Germany-headquartered Oetker Group, a multi-billion-euro family-owned company engaged in the manufacturer of frozen pizza, desserts, cake mixes and other food and beverage products, to identify the rightful heir to the estate of the original owner of the work.
Since 2016 the Kunstsammlung has pursued a project to audit what is a private collection, including commissioning experts to research the provenance of artworks that form part of the collection. The purpose of the audit is to assess whether any of the pieces belonged to a person or persons persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, ideology or political opposition to National Socialism during the Third Reich period who were wrongfully deprived of their artwork.
The Der Hexenmeister painting is an example of late romanticism and is seen as typical of the “subtle humor” of the artist. Between 1875 and 1880 Spitzweg, who is one of the best-known German proponents of Biedermeier and Romanticism, created two almost identical paintings with the same subject matter.
One of those paintings formed part of the collection owned by the Polish tobacco dealer Leo Bendel. He and his wife, Else Bendel (neé Golze), lived together in Berlin and Vienna. In 1935 Bendel was unable to continue on his professional and personal path in Germany due to state-sponsored persecution of persons of Jewish heritage, forcing him to give up residence in Berlin and flee to Austria. In 1937, he sold the painting to Galerie Heinemann in Munich.
A year later Bendel gave up his Polish citizenship and, together with his wife, converted to Catholicism. Nonetheless, in September 1939 he was arrested by the Nazis in Vienna and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he perished in March of 1940. His non-Jewish widow survived the war.
In 1937, Caroline Oetker purchased the Der Hexenmeister painting from Galerie Heinemann. She bequeathed the work of art to her grandson Rudolf-August Oetker. In 1998 the painting became part of the Kunstsammlung Rudolf-August Oetker GmbH collection. Eight years later representatives of the estate of Leo Bendel informed the Kunstsammlung that the painting was once in the collection of Leo Bendel.
The Kunstsammlung and the Bendel estate’s legal representatives have been in agreement since 2016 that the Kunstsammlung would return the painting to the rightful heirs. However, it has taken time to identify them and obtain Court documents evidencing their right to the artwork. Now that the relevant Court has identified the party entitled to the painting by law, all was clear for the return.
Dr. Jörg Schillinger, spokesperson for Dr. August Oetker KG and member of the board of the Kunstsammlung, voiced delight that the painting is finally being reunited with the family of its original owner. He stated: “This case demonstrates that even in scenarios where the parties involved are in agreement with each other as to how to resolve such a matter amicably and in an equitable way, identifying the rightful heirs can take time and delay the actual return of the artwork to the heir entitled to it.”
The lawyer representing Leo Bendel’s heir, Gunnar Schnabel, made the following statement on behalf of his client: “The heirs to Leo Bendel are delighted that the Kunstsammlung Rudolf-August Oetker GmbH is now returning this painting which was lost as a direct result of persecution by the Nazis. The settlement with a private collection on the basis of a solution that is both amicable and equitable is exemplary. Unfortunately, internationally such solutions are still the exception to the rule.”