On a fall day in 1935, a broke and broken Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany named Alfred Flechtheim sat down and wrote a pleading letter to a New York art world potentate. Before the Nazis ran him out of Germany and turned his visage into the caricature of the “degenerate ArtJew,” Flechtheim had been Weimar Germany’s pre-eminent dealer, representing dozens of modern masters from Picasso to Klee. Now, he had a single modernist piece left in his possession, he said, and he desperately needed money. How much, he wanted to know, would donors to the new Museum of Modern Art pay?
Not too much, it turned out.
Nearly eight decades later, last September, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider claims by the heirs to the German émigré artist George Grosz (also at one time represented by Flechtheim) to three paintings in MoMA by the Expressionist master. A lower court had agreed with MoMA’s contention that the clock had run out on the family’s claim, allowing MoMA to keep the paintings. But that quiet little case has cracked open a door into the creepy attic of 1930s Europe, revealing a ghost haunting not just MoMA but much of the modern art world.
The specter is Flechtheim, who before being hounded out of Germany by the Nazis sold works by such giants of modernism as Max Beckmann, Rudolf Belling, George Grosz and Karl Hofer, as well as Picasso, Braque, Chagall and Renoir. The son of a grain dealer, Flechtheim had married an heiress named Betti Goldschmidt and, using her money, built a gallery empire representing the greatest artists of the era, who in turn sometimes depicted him in their work. German sculptor Rudolf Belling even sculpted his nose in bronze, and casts of that work are held by Harvard and MoMA.
“Flechtheim was the Nazis’ poster boy, literally as the symbol of the Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy to pollute the German people, and his visage was presented in Nazi propaganda as ‘the ArtJew Flechtheim,’” said Raymond Dowd, one of the Grosz heirs’ lawyers. “Yet despite being the dealer of Picasso, Braque, Derain, Grosz, Klee and many others and having his entire inventory ‘Aryanized’ by the Nazis, he is forgotten by American art historians, and artworks stolen from him hang in the world’s museums.”
Flechtheim died in 1937 of blood poisoning after stepping on a rusty nail in London. He was then 59 and bankrupt, having fled Germany just after Hitler came to power. He left his wife, Betti, behind and they divorced in 1936 in hopes of protecting her from persecution; it didn’t work—she swallowed an overdose sleeping pills on the eve of her deportation to the death camps in 1941.
By then, Flechtheim’s galleries had long since been “Aryanized.” Many of the works that had been in his galleries found their way to museums and private collections around the world. At least 16 of them, according to the Grosz family lawyer, are in the MoMA collection. A German lawsuit is underway by Flechtheim’s own heirs, although MoMA is not a defendant in that case.
Museums like MoMA holding art with provenance from Flechtheim’s galleries can claim that they have legal title to them under American law, which recognized the right of the Nazis to sell off art in the state collections and also to sell art not obtained through persecution.
But Jonathan Petropolous, chair of the history department at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and author of The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, said that while it is technically true that Flechtheim was free to leave Germany when he did, the Nazis had deliberately destroyed his business.
In 1933, trying to stay afloat, Flechtheim authorized his assistant to try to raise money by auctioning some important works. The local Nazi storm troopers got wind of the event and staged a public protest, encircling the gallery and stopping the sale. “The auction was a fiasco and Flechtheim was devastated,” Mr. Petropolous said. “That started things. Nazis began harassing him about his financial affairs. They assigned a trustee and forced him to sell off his stock. They gradually escalated the pressure. He may appear to have had some degree of freedom, but in fact he was told to sell off this stuff. He would not have done it had he not been persecuted. He was a symbol of the Jewish art dealer promoting modern art and they went after him.”
Around the same time the auction was sabotaged, on April 1, 1933, Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels published a vicious defamatory article on Flechtheim in his paper, Volksparole. The attacks continued after his death when Flechtheim was featured in a photo-montage associated with the notorious Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937.
As the Nazis rose to power, Goebbels and Hitler eagerly scapegoated the Weimar artists who had invented what came to be known as Expressionism. Nazis organized book burnings and began banishing modern artists from teaching positions. In 1932, they “purged” 20,000 works from state collections, encouraging government-approved artists to return to Classicism.
On June 19, 1937, three months after Flechtheim died penniless in London, the Nazis inaugurated an exhibit of so-called Degenerate Art in Munich, featuring paintings by the likes of Chagall, Picasso, Beckmann, Klee and Dix, which they had removed from state galleries. The pieces were hung unframed, crowded together and at skewed angles, to emphasize their purported ugliness. Nazi “curators” displayed the prices museums had paid for the paintings in Weimar German marks, a time when the price of a loaf of bread was 233 billion marks, to further inflame public fury.
The poster advertising the exhibit was a distorted modernist-style painting of a visage suspiciously like that of Flechtheim, with a crude, shadowy caricature in the background. Goebbels later wrote that the exhibit was intended to display to the German people “the perverse Jewish spirit” infecting German culture, though as it happened, just six of the 112 artists in the Degenerate Art exhibit were actually Jewish.