Swiss landscape painting, formerly intended for Hitler’s Führermuseum, acquired by the National Gallery in London

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The National Gallery in London has just acquired a painting that was once part of Hitler’s Führermuseum, The arts journal can relate. After extensive provenance research, the gallery is now convinced that the landscape by Swiss artist Alexandre Calame was legitimately acquired, since there was no claim from any pre-Nazi owner. The acquisition will be on display today.

Calame’s Lodges in Rigi (1861) was purchased from Christie’s in 1996 by Asbjørn Lunde (1927-2017), a New York lawyer of Norwegian parents. He bequeathed it to the museum through the American Friends of the National Gallery.

Calame was the most important Swiss painter of the 19th century Alps. Many of its landscapes are from the region around Lake Lucerne, which is dominated by Mount Rigi.

We do not know the provenance of Lodges in Rigi before July 1943, when it was recorded at the Maria Gillhausen Gallery in Munich. Research from the National Gallery concluded that Gillhausen was “an extremely problematic figure” known to have acted for the Nazi regime. The place where she acquired Calame’s work cannot be found, but it may well have come from a Jewish victim.

In July 1943, Gillhausen sold the work to another Munich dealer, Maria Almas-Dietrich, who eventually purchased over a thousand paintings for Hitler’s Führermuseum project in Linz (which was never built). A photograph of Lodges in Rigi was later included in an album from Hitler’s collection. Initially, the work was stored at the Nazi Führerbau in Munich and in 1944, or early 1945, it was moved for storage in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria.

Lodges in Rigi was recovered by American troops from the salt mine and returned to Munich in October 1945 to the central collection point set up by the Allies to handle displaced art. The property then passed to the Bavarian government and later to the Austrian authorities, when it passed to Salzburg. No one claimed Calame’s work and in 1966 it was stored in the former Carthusian monastery in Mauerbach, outside Vienna. In 1979, the painting was deposited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

In 1985, the Austrian authorities decided that unclaimed works of art should be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the victims of the Holocaust. Christie’s was commissioned in 1996 to sell a little over a thousand works, including Lodges in Rigi. The painting, then attributed to “a disciple” of Calame, sold for the equivalent of £ 5,700 and was purchased by Lunde. He offered it on long-term loan to the National Gallery in 2011.

The gallery’s acquisition policy states that it must be “certain that it will have a good title”. In particular, he must ensure that “due diligence [has] been made with regard to possible restitution requests if the history of the painting between 1933 and 1945 is not clear ”. A gallery spokesperson says that with Lodges in Rigi museum staff “have done their due diligence in making sure we have a good title.”

The provenance of the work from 1933 to 1943 is completely unknown. Its acquisition for the Führermuseum suggests that it is very possible that the photo was looted or acquired during a forced sale to a Jewish victim. The fact that no claims were made means that it is possible that the family perished in the Holocaust.

If the pre-war owner had survived, he would have had decades to make a claim before the 1996 auction, but it is still possible that publicity regarding the National Gallery acquisition could alert a descendant. Any claim would likely go to the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, an independent body established by the government. If the panel then recommended restitution, it would almost certainly be accepted by the gallery.

Even if Lodges in Rigi was only attributed to a follower of Calame at Christie’s auction, research at the National Gallery turned it into a full autograph work by the artist. This morning the Calame the painting is on display in gallery 45, having survived its turbulent 20th century history.

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