The Bernhard Winter Foundation: Provenance Research at the Stadtmuseum Oldenburg
- Franziska Boegehold
- Sabine Stührholdt, M.A.
Projektbericht_Ansprechpartner_FunktionProvenienzforschung Stadtmuseum Oldenburg
- November 2015 to February 2016
Researchers at the Stadtmuseum Oldenburg investigated whether Nazi-looted artworks were among the estate of the Oldenburg portraitist and regional painter Bernhard Winter (1871–1964). During the Third Reich, the artist and his wife Martha Winter were ardent supporters of the nationalistic ideology of the Nazis. This fact along with the unwavering recognition the Nazi regime bestowed on Bernard Winter led the museum to ask whether the collector – thanks to his connections – may have been given preferential access to the so-called “Holland assets”. These refer to confiscated household assets from Jewish owners which were looted during the Nazi occupation of the Benelux countries and France between 1942 and 1944 and were widely distributed in Oldenburg and the former Weser-Ems district.
The investigation will focus on Winter’s cultural-historic collection of more than 600 objects, including rustic household and decorative items, middle-class dishware for everyday use, and regional furniture dating back to different centuries. There are also several pieces in the collection which do not match Bernhard Winter’s collection style which was essentially characterised by local tradition. Some noticeable examples include an Art Nouveau image of a presumably Belgian ladies salon, and several handcrafted objects from France and Holland. Researchers intend to intensively scrutinise these items, yet there is no concrete evidence as to whether any of these were acquired through unlawful means.
In the extensive first phase of the project, researchers examined the entire written and artistic estate of Bernhard and Martha Winter, comprising a total of 27 archive boxes and several crates in the Stadtmuseum. All artistic items and documents of relevance were systematically investigated with respect to suspicious provenance, including various personal notes and correspondence.
The second phase involved a systematic investigation of the objects themselves. The collection of some 600 pieces which are either on display in the permanent exhibition or stored in the depot, underwent investigation in search of specific external markings of ownership and provenance, e.g. handwritten labels, stamps, stickers, catalogue numbers etc. This work served as the basis for creating the first digital catalogue of Bernhard Winter’s cultural-historical collection in 2013.
During both research phases, concrete evidence and potentially relevant data were documented in the digital catalogue so that researchers could easily access them in the case of future investigations or new findings.
During the project, particular emphasis was placed on scrutinising three specific cases, for which researchers suspected that they may have been illegally seized through Nazi persecution. After further investigation, however, research showed that two cases went beyond the original presumption that the items had belonged to the “Holland assets”.
Initial suspicion was based on a letter to Bernhard Winter enclosed in a package containing a piece of jewellery. The letter from the gold- and silversmith Friedrich Byl from Leer regarded the artist’s order of a traditional silver bracelet on 20 June 1934, which had just “come in for delivery”. In view of the fact that about 35 Jewish residents of Leer emigrated or moved away to larger German cities in 1933 and 1934 in order to escape Nazi repression, the question is whether this piece of jewellery was acquired as a result of Nazi persecution. The provenance of the silver bracelet can neither be determined within the collection or on the basis of existing sources at present. Business records from the Leer-based Byl Co. have not yet been located. Based on current knowledge, the provenance of the piece of jewellery in question remains unclarified.
A private note by Martha Winter provided grounds for suspicion concerning a second item directly connected to the thematic area of “Holland assets”. On 25 October 1942 she noted the loss of her husband’s umbrella. Mr Wächter from Rastede obliged by lending him a stick umbrella which Mr Wächter had “kept for himself as a merchant”. In the relevant war years of 1942 to 1944, the Wächter department store was one of the places where the “Holland Assets” were publicly distributed. It is quite possible that the umbrella that he had “kept for himself” had once belonged to the collection of Nazi-looted assets which were transported to the Oldenburg region from the occupied territories via the Holland route during the so-called “M-Aktion” (Operation M). In Bernhard Winter’s estate which originally comprised miscellany household items, researchers could not identify such a stick umbrella.
The third case led to an unexpected and more pressing suspicion regarding an early central work by the artist Bernhard Winter himself. The painting is a genre piece titled “Die Webstube” (The Weaving Room) which had been sold at the major Berlin art exhibition in 1898. According to a diary entry by Martha Winter, the painting, which had belonged to “the Jewish owner Dr. Goldmann, Berlin (who had moved to Paris)” was put up for sale by his Oldenburg relatives Berg-Steintahl (editor’s note: correct spelling “Steinthal”) in 1934 and was purchased by the city of Oldenburg at an “inexpensive price”. The artwork in question is not part of the Stadtmuseum’s collection, but rather can be found in the holdings of the Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Oldenburg. As a result, both museums engaged in close cooperation to clarify the complex circumstances surrounding the painting. In an effort to fill in the gaps of provenance prior to its sale in 1934, researchers discovered and reviewed important documents in Bernhard Winter’s written estate, which were then forwarded to the Landesmuseum Oldenburg. These findings contain key evidence for subsequent future investigations.
In order to provide the public an overview of the provenance research activities in northwest Germany, a progress report on the current research project at the Stadtmuseum Oldenburg was published in the annual journal “Marsh Council News on Research Funding in the North Sea Coastal Region” (issue 53/2016, pp. 89-92).
The concluded research project and its findings were presented to a larger gathering of professionals at the conference “Provenance Research in the Northwest” at the Museumsdorf Cloppenburg (15 March 2016).
The Stadtmuseum Oldenburg is a member of the “Provenance Research Network of Lower Saxony”.