Basel Art Museum Kunstmuseum Basel Switzerland (Shutterstock/Oliver Foerstner)
Switzerland's Basel Art Museum will pay an undisclosed sum to heirs of a German art historian, it said on Friday, concluding it bought works from his personal collection in the 1930s after he was persecuted by the Nazi government.
The museum, now closed due to the coronavirus, has more than 100 drawings and prints, including a "Madonna" lithograph from Norwegian painter Edvard Munch potentially worth millions of dollars, that once belonged to Jewish art historian Curt Glaser.
The museum will keep the works, for which it plans a 2022 exhibition detailing Glaser's life, his role as a critic and friendships with artists including Munch, famous for "The Scream".
When the Nazis seized power in 1933, Glaser was ousted as director of Berlin's Kunstbibliothek art-historical library. He auctioned much of his personal collection, including works bought by Basel, before fleeing to America, where he died in 1943.
After rejecting restitution claims by several of Glaser's descendants in 2008, the museum took up the case again when documents emerged indicating museum officials in 1933 knew they were buying Glaser's works at a "cheap price" just as Jews in Germany faced mounting oppression.
Valerie Sattler, a US-born Glaser descendant who plays cello with the Nuremberg Symphony in Germany, has spearheaded efforts to reach an agreement with the museum.
"It's been a long time coming and we're very glad they re-opened the case," Sattler said in an interview. "It was almost 10 years after they had refused to talk about any kind of settlement. We're very happy they re-considered that."
Basel officials resumed talks with Glaser's descendants given the circumstances under which his works were acquired and evolving views of principles governing art works that changed hands in Nazi Germany, the museum said.
"He was definitely a victim of National Socialism," a museum spokeswoman said. "We tried to look at this with fresh eyes."
A half-dozen Glaser heirs in the United States, Brazil and Germany have successfully petitioned museums and private owners including Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and Cologne’s Ludwig Museum to return other works.
Sattler said the 2022 exhibition was a key part of the agreement.
"We will be there for the opening," Sattler said. "That was also an important thing for us, that we knew we can be there and be part of it."
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