Israel Museum Restitutes Painting to Artist’s Heirs

The Israel Museum announced today the restitution of the painting The Return of Tobias, c. 1934, by the German-Jewish artist Max Liebermann (1847-1935), to the artist’s heirs. The work was looted from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where it was on loan from the artist, in the 1930s. The painting was received in 1955 by the Israel Museum’s precursor, the Bezalel National Museum, through the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), established after World War II to distribute to cultural organizations around the globe looted works of art whose owners or heirs were unknown.

Completed late in Liebermann’s life, the oil painting The Return of Tobias depicts a scene from the Book of Tobit in which Tobit’s son returns home with a cure for his father’s blindness. The restitution of the work to the heirs of Max and Martha Liebermann follows recent research that revealed that the painting was from the artist’s personal collection. Previously the painting had been believed to be another work by Liebermann of the same title, which was also looted from the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The collection of Max and Martha Liebermann comprised several thousand paintings and drawings, the vast majority of which were dispersed and lost between 1935 and 1943, either sold under duress or expropriated immediately following Martha Liebermann’s death. The family’s efforts to trace the collection in the 1950s and 1960s were unsuccessful, but recent research has identified several lost works, and The Return of Tobias is the third to be restored to the family. Following its restitution, the painting is being presented in the exhibition The Berlin Jewish Museum (1933-1938): Traces of a Lost Collection, curated by Chana Schuetz and on view at Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum from September 10 through December 31, 2011.

The Return of Tobias was one of roughly 250 paintings, 250 works on paper, and 700 objects of Judaica deposited by JRSO for safekeeping at the Bezalel National Museum, precursor to the Israel Museum, which became their custodian following its establishment in 1965. Through the years, the Museum has exhibited and published many of these works, which have been catalogued and accessible in a special section on the Museum’s website since 2007.

The restitution of The Return of Tobias continues the Museum’s history of significant restitutions, including most recently the return of the Paul Klee drawing Veil Dance, 1920, to the estate of German art collector Harry Fuld Jr., in 2010. In 2008, two ancient Roman gold-glass medallions were restituted to the heirs to the Dzialynska Collection at Goluchow Castle in Poland. The Museum reacquired one medallion for its collection, and the second was purchased and placed with the Museum on extended loan. Among other examples in recent years, in 2005, Edgar Degas’ charcoal drawing Four Nude Female Dancers Resting, ca. 1898, was restituted to the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, a noted Dutch art dealer who died while fleeing the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. And, in 2000, the Museum returned Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmarte, 1897, to the heir to Holocaust victim Max Silberberg, who placed the painting on long-term loan to the Museum.

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