The Von der Heydt Museum Wuppertal has restituted the painting “Portrait of Felix Benjamin” by Max Liebermann to the heirs of Felix Benjamin, who was persecuted and murdered by the National Socialists. The portrait was reacquired with funds from the Freiherr von der Heydt Foundation and can remain in the museum’s collection.
Fig. above: Max Liebermann: Portrait of Felix Benjamin, 1921, oil on canvas, 98.5 x 75 cm, Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal © Von der Heydt-Museumrtal © Von der Heydt-Museum
Felix Benjamin (1871-1943) was a successful businessman. Originally from Beuthen, he lived with his family in Berlin from 1910. He was co-owner of the coal and steel company Rawack & Grünfeld, which had been founded in Bytom by the Grünfeld family, the family of his wife Ida Benjamin née Grünfeld (1873-1943). In their prestigious villa in Berlin-Grunewald, Mr and Mrs Benjamin also collected works of art, mainly by 19th century German painters.
The Benjamin and Grünfeld families were of Jewish descent and were racially persecuted by the National Socialists after 30 January 1933. In 1935, the family was forced to part with their property in Grunewald. Several moves in Berlin followed, forcing the Benjamins to continually downsize their household. In 1937, Rawack & Grünfeld was Aryanised by the Friedrich Flick Group, and Felix Benjamin was forced to give up his partnership and managing position in the family firm. His wife Ida Benjamin lived in a sanatorium in Breslau in the early 1940s.
Each move resulted in the sale of furniture, arts and crafts, and paintings. The first forced sales took place at the beginning of 1935 by the Berlin auction house “Union”. According to the memoirs of the former housekeeper Rosa Rossa, any remaining art and jewellery items were taken away or confiscated. According to the “declaration of assets” that Felix Benjamin had to draw up on 15 February 1943, one month before his deportation, he no longer had any assets at that time. On 17 March 1943 he was deported to Theresienstadt, where he perished shortly afterwards. Ida Benjamin was also deported to Theresienstadt a little later and murdered there on 11 July 1943. The four daughters of the Benjamin family managed to escape National Socialist persecution between 1937 and 1939 by emigrating to the USA and Canada.
Felix Benjamin’s art collection also included his portrait, painted by Max Liebermann in 1921 on the occasion of the entrepreneur’s 50th birthday. Since then it had been in the family home in Grunewald. It is proven that Benjamin was able to take the painting with him when he first moved to smaller flats. Its trace was lost in the course of 1937. It was not until 1981 that it was briefly located again at a Sotheby’s auction. The Von der Heydt Museum acquired the painting from the Cologne Kunsthaus Lempertz in 2002.
After the provenance of the painting has been verified, it can be assumed that the Benjamin family lost the “Portrait of Felix Benjamin” as a result of Nazi persecution, even though not all gaps in the tradition could be closed conclusively despite intensive research. In the spirit of the “Washington Principles” and the “Joint Declaration”, the parties agreed to bring about a “just and fair solution” by the City of Wuppertal restituting the painting to the heirs of Felix Benjamin.
After the painting was returned, it was reacquired with funds from the Freiherr von der Heydt Foundation. Dr Roland Mönig, Director of the Von der Heydt Museum: “Liebermann’s painting is inseparably linked to the person, history and fate of Felix Benjamin – and to the fate of his entire family. We are pleased and very grateful that the heirs after Felix Benjamin have placed their trust in us and were willing, as part of a fair and equitable solution, to leave this impressive work of art permanently in the Von der Heydt Museum. Whenever we exhibit the painting in the future – and of course in all our publications, in our collection digitally and in our daily outreach work – we will cherish the memory of the sitter and his family.”
Peter Margo, grandson of Felix Benjamin: “We thank the Von der Heydt Museum and the City of Wuppertal for their pioneering role in working with our family towards the reappraisal and recognition of the history of this painting, the first piece of our restitution efforts. We hope that this painting will forever remind us of the importance of remembering the Holocaust and honouring those who perished and those who survived. As a family, we also hope that the painting can serve as a small and lasting tribute to Felix Benjamin’s immense legacy and bravery. We would also like to thank Dr Imke Gielen, a lawyer at the von Trott zu Solz Lammek law firm in Berlin, for her support.”
Von der Heydt-Museum