Provenance research on Old German paintings from the Schäfer collection in the Veste Coburg art collections
- July 2014 to June 2015
In 2003 the Coburger Landesstiftung acquired the collection of Old German paintings from the collection of Schweinfurt industrialist Georg Schäfer for the Veste Coburg art collections. In 2014, in conjunction with the Bureau for Provenance Research (German Lost Art Foundation), the Veste Coburg art collections initiated a one-year project to conduct extensive research into the provenance of these works. The project focused in particular on answering the question of whether these paintings had been unlawfully confiscated from their former owners by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. They include works by Augsburg and Nuremberg masters such as Dürer and Cranach and their circle, as well as Munich, Swabian, Saxon and Bohemian panel paintings from around 1500. The project was funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media via the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz following a decision of the German Bundestag, by the Landesstelle für die nichtstaatlichen Museen in Bayern, the Oberfrankenstiftung and by the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg.
After it was first displayed in Schweinfurt town hall in 1985, the inventory of “Old German paintings from the collection of Georg Schäfer” was initially loaned to the Veste Coburg art collections in 1986.(1) In 2002, the heirs of the collector Georg Schäfer decided to sell this inventory and granted the Coburger Landesstiftung (the body responsible for the museum) the right of first refusal. Thanks to the combined efforts of the city of Coburg, the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bayerische Landesstiftung, the Niederfüllbacher Stiftung and the Bayerische Sparkassenstiftung, the Coburger Landesstiftung subsequently succeeded in raising the purchase sum requested by the heirs and the purchase agreement for the acquisition of the inventory was signed on February 12, 2003. The Schäfer family had left the Coburg museum six paintings as a gift.(2)
Through the exhibition “Old German paintings from the collection of Georg Schäfer”, which was shown in Schweinfurt town hall in fall 1985, a wider public became aware for the first time that the Schweinfurt industrialist Georg Schäfer (1896–1975) had not only collected 19th century paintings since 1950, but Old German panel paintings as well. Compared to the art collections that were assembled in Germany after 1945, this collection focus was almost unique at that time. Schäfer’s Old Master collection is thus probably one of the last of its kind. (3)
However, from the outset, the main focus of the Schäfer collection was art from the Romantic and Biedermeier periods, which Georg Schäfer had encountered as a child in his parents’ house. After the death of his father, Georg Schäfer had inherited some of the paintings from this collection. From 1950 onward, he built up his own art collection around this core inventory, concentrating primarily on Romantic and Biedermeier painting. As many German collectors after 1945 concentrated on purchasing modern painting that had been discredited as “degenerate” during the National Socialist era, the range of works available from the Romantic and Biedermeier periods was extensive and meant that Georg Schäfer was able to amass a painting collection of impressive proportions. In just over two decades, he assembled a collection of around 6,000 paintings and 4,500 watercolors and drawings, which he kept in Schloss Obbach near Schweinfurt, the seat of the Schäfer family.
Providing advice and assistance to the Schweinfurt collector as he built up his Old Master collection from 1954 onward were Ernst Buchner (1892–1962), an expert on late Gothic painting and director of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen since 1933, the art historian Friedrich Winkler (1888–1965) and Alfred Stange (1894–1968). Ernst Buchner in particular had worked for the Nazis during the National Socialist era. There is evidence he was actively involved in the “aryanization” of Jewish galleries and especially in the expropriation of Jewish property, predominantly in Munich.(4) For this reason, the Allies removed him from his position as general director in 1945. However, he was then reappointed to this position in 1953 until he retired in 1957. Around two thirds of the German Old Master paintings bought by Georg Schäfer after 1954 came into the Schäfer collection on Buchner’s advice.
In the 1950s, Buchner frequently visited Schloss Obbach, the Schäfer family’s estate, together with the Munich auctioneer Rudolf Neumeister, who had taken over the Munich auction house Weinmüller in April 1958 and, like Buchner, was actively involved in building up Schäfer’s Old Master collection. Georg Schäfer made his first purchases of Old German paintings in 1954. By around 1970 there were approximately 600 Old Master paintings in the collection. After the death of Georg Schäfer in 1975, this inventory was reduced in order to refine the collection profile.
While Ernst Buchner was involved in building up the collection of Old Masters in the role of adviser and intermediary, it was primarily from Munich art dealers that Georg Schäfer acquired Old Masters paintings after 1954. These included Rudolf Neumeister, Alexander Gebhardt, Ludwig Wiesnet, Hagmann & Gräf and Xaver Scheidwimmer, and also an art agent named Jan Dik who operated in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Munich and who was previously relatively unknown in the provenance research field. With a few exceptions, these were art dealers who, before 1945, had been actively involved in Nazi-organized art raids of masterpieces formerly owned by Jews and had profited from these.
The son of the collector, Hans Peter Schäfer, took over responsibility for the collection in 1971 and, in agreement with Georg Schäfer, appointed a scientific advisory board which included the former curator at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Wulf Schadendorf, the Romantic specialist Jens Christian Jensen and the Augsburg museum director and expert on Old German painting, Bruno Bushart.
In 1997 the main inventory of the Schäfer collection, 19th century art, was incorporated into a foundation. This was the basis for the Georg Schäfer Museum in Schweinfurt which was inaugurated in 2000. Of the 41 paintings examined, 11 proved to be unproblematic based on the provenance evidenced. 30 objects were categorized as problematic because they have gaps in provenance that have not been closed and come from art dealers who also dealt in looted art.
An article about the project is in print; this presents ways of working and research findings using individual objects as examples.
1 Exhib. cat. “Altdeutsche Bilder der Sammlung Georg Schäfer Schweinfurt”, Schweinfurt Old Town Hall October 12–November 24, 1985, edited by Isolde Lübbeke and Bruno Bushart, Schweinfurt 1985. For information on the takeover of this inventory, see also: Klaus Weschenfelder, Altdeutsche Bilder der Sammlung Schäfer, eds. Kulturstiftung der Länder and the Veste Coburg art collections, Berlin and Coburg 2003.
2 Weschenfelder 2003, p. 6 and following pages.
3 The collection of Rhinelander Heinz Kisters is the only comparable collection as regards focus, but not quality.
4 See: Vanessa Voigt/Horst Keßler, Die Beschlagnahmung jüdischer Kunstsammlungen 1938/39 in München. Ein Forschungsprojekt der Staatlichen und Städtischen Museen in München zum Schicksal jüdischer Kunstsammler und Kunsthändler, in: Kunst sammeln, Kunst handeln. Beiträge des internationalen Symposiums in Wien, Schriftenreihe der Kommission für Provenienzforschung, vol. 3, Vienna 2012, pages 19–37.
Billeter, Felix; Voigt, Vanessa: Überprüfung Alter Meister : Provenienzforschung in den Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg. In: museum heute, 48 12/2015, S. 40-44. [Link]
Billeter, Felix; Voigt, Vanessa: Provenienzrecherche zu den altdeutschen Bildern der Sammlung Schäfer in den Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg. Abschlussbericht, Veste Coburg, 2015. [Link]