Franz von Lenbach's portrait of Katia Pringsheim shows how exciting, stimulating and effective provenance research can be. Katrin Stoll, Managing Partner at NEUMEISTER, on the history of the portrait and on the difficulties and opportunities in dealing with Nazi fugitive property.



What can be seen in the portrait?

A girl in half profile. Dark hair, red cap, alert look. The small painting - oil on cardboard, 41.5 × 35.5 centimeters - shows Katia Pringsheim, only daughter of the married couple Alfred and Hedwig Pringsheim - and later wife of the Nobel laureate in literature Thomas Mann.

Who painted the picture and when?

The present painting "Ein reizendes Köpfchen" ("A lovely little head") was created by Franz von Lenbach in 1892. The famous Munich painter masterfully rendered the portrait in a ductus typical of his portraits, with a playful, almost shimmering alternation of accentuation and lighting, but also only vaguely suggested parts. Lenbach produced numerous portraits of members of the Pringsheim family. This very wealthy, respected and art-loving family resided on Königsplatz in a magnificent palace that was considered one of the most important meeting places of the cultural and intellectual elite in Munich at the turn of the century. In addition to Alfred Pringsheim's important majolica and silver collection, a large wall frieze by the painter Hans Thoma could also be admired there. And it was only natural that Franz von Lenbach's neighboring artist's villa should be visited - as Hedwig Pringsheim's diary entries impressively attest.

How did the painting come to NEUMEISTER?

The portrait came from the estate of an elderly lady in Munich. She bequeathed it to her nephew, a businessman living in the USA. His grandparents had acquired the painting in 1940 in good faith as a "portrait of a girl" - without indication of provenance. The owner delivered the work to NEUMEISTER for auction on August 3, 2018. On December 5, 2018, it was to be auctioned by us. But things turned out differently... On the morning of the auction day, Dr. Dirk Heißerer contacted me. The respected Thomas Mann researcher credibly assured that the portrait is Katia Pringsheim, more precisely: a variant or preliminary stage of a portrait created at the same time, which was used as the cover of Katia Mann's, 1974 published book "My unwritten memoirs" and thus became widely known. The similarity between the two works is truly astonishing.

And then?

The management decided to take the painting out of the auction immediately. After all, we were suddenly dealing with a completely new situation. Because of the new findings, the painting now found itself in a completely different cultural-historical context.

What happened next?

We immediately informed the consignor and followed up on Dr. Heißerer's thesis. He suggested that the painting be donated to the Thomas Mann Forum in Munich. At the same time, the idea of a donation to the Thomas Mann House in Pacific Palisades was considered. Before a decision could be made on this, however, it was important for me to clarify the provenance of the painting as far as possible. In my opinion, this was the prerequisite for any further legally sound course of action.

What findings did the provenance research bring?

We have to go back to the beginning for a moment. The Jewish couple Alfred and Hedwig Pringsheim were only able to leave Nazi Germany for Switzerland at the end of October 1939, literally at the very last minute, taking only a few belongings with them. Their art, including the famous silver and majolica collections - were forcibly auctioned or confiscated. The "Portrait of a Girl" was purchased by the owner's grandparents on February 7, 1940 for 3,000 marks from an art dealer named Franz Hanold. The surviving purchase receipt states that the painting was painted on wood. However, upon examination in our house, it turned out that it was painted on cardboard. In addition, we came across a blue, rudimentarily preserved inscription "Pringsheim" under a wooden panel that covered the back of the portrait - someone had possibly tried to erase the name here. Now I was particularly concerned to document the provenance without any gaps.

What did that mean in concrete terms?

It was now a question of checking whether our painting was Nazi looted property. And for this I have to elaborate a bit. On December 3, 1998, 44 states, including Germany, signed the Washington Principles. This is a legally non-binding agreement to identify works of looted art confiscated during the Nazi era, to locate their pre-war owners or heirs, and to find a "just and fair solution. Germany followed this commitment with a "Declaration by the Federal Government, the Länder and the central municipal associations on the tracing and restitution of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, in particular from Jewish ownership" of December 9, 1999, as well as a "Handbook on the implementation of the Washington Declaration". In this document, (only) public institutions, i.e. museums, libraries and archives, are required to process their holdings in accordance with the Washington Principles and to seek fair and equitable solutions.

But to what extent does this apply to the art trade?

Surely auction houses are not public institutions? That is exactly the point! And it gets even better: the Cultural Property Protection Act, which came into force on 6.8.2016 and regulates the handling of artifacts of any kind, requires the art trade to submit a complete chain of documentation under threat of punishment and a reversal of the burden of proof. However, as the present case of the Lenbach painting shows, this is not always possible - due to war, migration or other circumstances, records or evidence are often simply no longer available. But that is then a fundamental problem. Yes. The responsibility of complete documentation is delegated to the private owners of artworks and the art trade - and for many, this is simply not affordable due to the costs and effort involved. There is currently a lack of practice-oriented instruments for finding pragmatic solutions in the often confused and complex initial situation. So far, there is only the blanket requirement to comply with the Washington Declaration; concrete assistance is not offered. More than 75 years after the fall of the Nazi regime, we would like to see clear guidelines from the legislature. A restitution law with a precisely defined set of rules for practice is overdue.

What role does provenance research play at NEUMEISTER?

Provenance research is a personal concern for me, and the creation of legal security for our clientele is part of the NEUMEISTER DNA. If there is even a hint of doubt or ambiguity, a careful examination is immediately carried out by our company. To this end, I have the luxury of a large team of experts who are closely networked with archives, databases and other relevant institutions. NEUMEISTER has set standards in provenance research, also with regard to the reappraisal of its own past, which I have had extensively researched. Provenance research is a top priority for us!

Außenansicht des
Thomas Mann Hauses in
Pacific Palisades.
Thomas Manns Arbeitszimmer in Kalifornien.

Here, in the far right corner, Franz von Lenbach's "Reizendes Köpfchen" will be hung - exactly where the second version of the portrait once hung, which is now kept at ETH Zurich (Thomas Mann estate).




Pacific Palisades

Like Adorno, Brecht, Döblin, Feuchtwanger or Werfel, Thomas Mann had landed on the Southern California Riviera while fleeing Nazi Germany. Having already lived on the U.S. East Coast since 1938, Thomas Mann moved to Pacific Palisades (Los Angeles) in 1941 and built a house there a year later, where he lived with his family until 1952; during these years, the property was to become a place of artistic creation and intellectual exchange. In his "White House of Exile" - according to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier - Thomas Mann addressed the pressing political problems of his time in essays and books, as well as the question of a common foundation of values for Western democracies. In November 2016, the Foreign Office acquired the house for the Federal Republic of Germany, which was threatened with demolition, in order to revive it as a place for reflection and discussion about common challenges of our time under the sponsorship of the association Villa Aurora & Thomas Mann House. The two-story villa has undergone extensive renovations, bringing back to life the architecture of Julius Ralph Davidson, who built the house in 1941. Furnished with featherweight classics (Vitra, Walter Knoll, Jan Kath, Occhio, Ingo Maurer, Thonet), it is not only a place of culture, but also of design.