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Virgin Mary sculpture sold under Nazi duress returned to Jewish owner’s heirs

Germany finds 16th-century breastfeeding statuette was sold in 1936 by collector Jakob Goldschmidt under unfair financial conditions

A Maria Lactans, or breastfeeding Virgin Mary statuette, which was returned to the heirs of Jewish-German banker Jakob Goldschmidt, on January 20, 2023. (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)
A Maria Lactans, or breastfeeding Virgin Mary statuette, which was returned to the heirs of Jewish-German banker Jakob Goldschmidt, on January 20, 2023. (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)

A German government foundation on Friday returned a 16th-century statuette of a nursing Virgin Mary to the heirs of its Jewish owner, who sold the piece while subject to Nazi persecution in 1936.

Jakob Goldschmidt, a notable Berlin banker, was an early target of the Nazis and fled the country for Switzerland in 1933 due to financial pressures under the regime. He arrived in New York in 1936, leaving behind an impressive art collection.

Though he was able to export some of the works to the US, others, like the statuette, were used as security for loans and were sold at auctions in Berlin.

The Maria Lactans was sold in June 1936 to art dealer Johannes Hinrichsen, who then sold it later that year to the Berlin State Museums.

German Jews began to come under financial pressure in 1933 amid early antisemitic measures initiated by the Nazi regime.

According to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), the auctioning off of Goldschmidt’s assets “qualifies as a persecution-related property loss under the Washington Principles,” referring to a 1998 deal requiring Nazi-looted art to be handed back to its rightful owners.

The foundation noted that Nazi persecution resulted in “considerable financial disadvantages” for Goldschmidt.

“The Dresdner Bank behaved increasingly uncooperatively towards him and thus thwarted amicable settlement of his financial circumstances,” the statement read.

An portrait of Jewish-German banker and art collector Jakob Goldschmidt, circa. 1925. (Collection Friedel Homeyer, Barsinghausen, Germany, via Wikipedia)

Hermann Parzinger, president of the SPK, said in a statement “there is no doubt that Jakob Goldschmidt was a victim of individual persecution at the very beginning of the Nazi era.

“I am therefore very pleased that we can now return the statuette of a Maria Lactan to Jakob Goldschmidt’s heirs,” he added.

Sabine Rudolph, a lawyer for the claimants, thanked the foundation for the return of the piece and “reparation for the injustice.”

“We are very pleased that the SPK has comprehensively described the special circumstances of this complex case and in the end acknowledged it in the appropriate manner,” Rudolph said.

The piece has been on loan to Germany’s Ulm Museum since 1993.

Goldschmidt was stripped of his German citizenship in 1940 and then dispossessed of his remaining assets a year later. He reestablished his career in New York, and died there in 1955.

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