Provenance research on prints by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
In 2014 we received a restitution claim from the heirs of Curt Glaser, a Jewish art historian of Berlin. The claim was for Red Cocotte, a pastel by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938). It was subsequently determined that this pastel could not have come from Glaser’s collection. The following year, however, the Staatsgalerie’s Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs embarked on a project to research a group of 143 prints by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Having made their way to Stuttgart in 1948, these prints have been in our possession since 1957. They all exhibit the same provenance, which appeared problematic from the start.
According to our inventory lists, the 143 Kirchner sheets had come from the “Sammlung Dr. Gervais, Zürich / Lyon”. The aim of the research project was to identify the hitherto unknown collector Dr Gervais as well as possible previous Jewish owners of the works, and learn more about the prints’ provenance.
From August 2015 to July 2016, the art historian Sandra-Kristin Diefenthaler, M. A. worked under the direction of our provenance researcher Dr Anja Heuss to investigate these issues within our collection holdings. On account of a report by Roman Norbert Ketterer, an art dealer of Stuttgart and the official trustee of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s estate from 1954 onward, it had been conjectured in the past that the works in the Gervais collection may have formerly belonged to Jews.
Today the magnitude of the »Sammlung Gervais« s estimated at more than 900 Kirchner works. On the basis of markings, works from these holdings were also identified in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, the Kupferstichkabinett of the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, the Ulmer Museum and other museums of Germany. All of the prints bear easily recognizable abbreviations such as KFZ for »Kirchner Farbige Zeichnung«. In many cases, the sheets are proofs the artist did not normally sell. Two works had verifiably still been in Kirchner’s possession in 1933.
Yet there was no evidence whatsoever of the existence of the collector Dr Gervais, neither in Zurich, Davos nor Lyon. In view of the historical circumstances, our experts therefore consider it possible that Dr and Mrs Gervais were an invention of the seller that enabled him to sell Kirchner works to buyers in Germany despite the freezing of assets: in 1945, all German assets in Switzerland were declared enemy assets and frozen. Nor is any other collector known who owned a comparable number of Kirchner works at the time. Provenance researchers have therefore come to the conclusion that only the artist himself, and later his widow Erna Kirchner (1884–1945), could have owned that many of his works.
Even if the exact circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the collection remain a mystery, we rule out the possibility that the works in question were seized in the context of Nazi persecution. Instead, we assume that the collection came from the estate of the artist himself, who died in 1938.
The research project was carried out with funds from the Land of Baden-Württemberg and the German Lost Art Foundation.