The Bavarian State Painting Collections, which is based in Munich and manages the art collections of museums located throughout the German state of Bavaria, has restituted a painting to the heirs of an important German-American art dealership. The work is believed to have been sold under duress by the art dealers as part of the Nazi Party’s strategy to disenfranchise Jewish people.
The State Collections will return a ca. 1480 painting to the “community of heirs” of A. S. Drey, which was founded in Munich in the 19th century and was a leading art business in both Germany and New York in the early 20th century. The painting depicts the St. Florian of Lorch, a Roman officer who was martyred by drowning in the early 4th century. The painting, which was done on a wood panel, is part of an unknown altarpiece; its creator is also unknown, as most altarpieces from that era were unattributed, though it is believed to be created in a Bavarian workshop.
In a statement, Bernd Sibler, the Bavarian State Minister, said, “With the restitution of the Gothic wooden panel to the legal community of heirs, the great injustice that the Drey and Stern families had to suffer under the Nazis has been officially recognized and a step taken towards making amends. I would like to thank the Bavarian State Painting Collections, with its provenance research work, for their committed endeavor toward achieving justice.”
According to an entry in the Frick Museum’s Center for the History of Collecting archives, the art dealership A. S. Drey was formed by Aaron S. Drey in Munich around 1864. In 1881, he brought on his son Siegfried Drey, who died in 1935, and son-in-law Adolf Stern, who died in 1931, as partners. Their sons—Paul Drey, Francis Drey, Friedrich Stern, and Ludwig Stern—later joined the business and they later opened offices in London and New York.
In 1935, the recently formed Reich Chamber of the Fine Arts ordered that the business be dissolved. After a tax audit that is believed to be motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment, the dealers were forced to sell a large portion of its inventory, including the St. Florian painting, at the Paul Graupe auction house in Berlin in order to settle the owed sum.
It is unclear who purchased the St. Florian painting at the Graupe auction, though Berlin art dealer Eduard Plietzsch purchased it from the buyer after the sale. Plietzsch then offered the painting to the Bavarian State Painting Collections in 1936 in exchange for two works from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. According to the press release announcing the restitution, the auction of works from the A. S. Drey inventory has been ruled a “compulsory sale.”
According to a 1945 declassified report by the U.S. Army’s Art Looting Investigation Unit, Siegfried Drey sold the remainder of the firm’s business and inventory, as well as the offices in Maximiliansplatz that it had occupied since 1913, to art dealer Walter Bornheim. Bornheim subsequently renamed the business Galerie fur Alte Kunst, and one of his clients was Hermann Göring, a high-ranking Nazi party member. Though Bornheim was not a member of the Nazi Party, the Drey’s high tax bill and his subsequent buying of A. S. Drey are considered part of the Nazis’ “Aryanization” of German businesses and society.
In a statement, Imke Gielen, a lawyer for the heirs, said, “On behalf of the Drey and Stern families we are grateful to the Bavarian State Painting Collections for carefully investigating the provenance of the painting and for establishing contact. The restitution is also the result of the continuous, systematic research carried out by the Bavarian State Painting Collections on their holdings.”