In 1974, Sophie Hagemann, a violin instructor at the Nuremberg Meistersinger Conservatory (which has since changed its name to the Nuremberg University of Music), acquired a violin made by Guiseppe Guarneri in 1706, from a dealer in Cologne, Germany. Before she died, Hagemann, the founder of the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation that promotes the musical training of young people, willed the Guarneri violin to the foundation. Experts estimate that with proper restoration, the violin could be worth at least half a million dollars.
There’s a rub. A Jewish music supplies dealer named Felix Hildesheimer, who was no longer able to stay in business because of Nazi race policies, bought the violin in Stuttgart, in January 1938, just before sending his two daughters to safety outside Germany. It is believed that Hildesheimer and his wife were planning to sell the violin after arriving in Australia, where they hoped to resettle. But the couple didn’t make it out of Germany and Felix Hildesheimer committed suicide in August 1939, days before the start of WW2.
The Limbach Commission, the German government’s advisory commission on the return of Nazi-looted cultural property, ruled in 2016 that the violin was either sold under duress or stolen by the Nazis after Hildesheimer’s death. The panel recommended that the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation pay Hildesheimer’s grandsons 100,000 euros ($121,000) and keep the violin.
The foundation agreed to the Commission’s ruling, but to date has not paid a cent to the heirs.
Their initial excuse was that they didn’t have the money and weren’t able to raise it from donors. But then, on January 20, the foundation cited “current information” that showed Hildesheimer was only forced to give up his music supplies business in 1939, not 1937, which means, so they claimed, “that the violin was sold as a retail product in his music shop.”
So last week, the Limbach Commission issued a statement saying, “Both sides accepted this as a fair and just solution,” and said that by coming up with their cockamamie theory about how the violin wasn’t stolen by the Nazis but sold willingly by Hildesheimer “the foundation is not just contravening existing principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art, it is also ignoring accepted facts about life in Nazi Germany.”
This “alternative fact” claim constitutes a very serious problem for the German government’s mechanism of restoring Nazi-looted works of art, under which the Limbach Commission cannot force the owners of stolen artworks, relying instead on its moral authority to yield voluntary consent. But once German owners of precious art that was looted from Jews shamelessly deny this facet of the Nazi Holocaust, an entirely different method of enforcement would have to be created, and such a method would inevitably require a more stringent legal process to prove ownership.
David Sand, Hildesheimer’s grandson who lives in California, told the NY Times that he and his family had been “very accommodating, and even offered the foundation assistance with fund-raising in emails back and forth over the last four years,” adding, “If the commission can be defied with no consequences, I don’t see how these cases can be dealt with in future.”
Holocaust denial for cash, what a concept.