Many Jewish art collectors and patrons have died in the Nazi era. Their collections were confiscated, had to be sold or have been lost in the chaos of war. The names of these men and women are largely fallen into oblivion after 1945, even if these collectors were well estimated citizens in their time, were involved in the cultural life of their city. Their works of art appear again and again on the art market and enrich today’s museums. One of these almost forgotten art collectors is Martin Flersheim from Frankfurt am Main.
The Frankfurt merchant Martin Flersheim (1856-1935) was a prominent art collector and patron in his time. He owned an extensive collection of contemporary German artists – including paintings by Franz von Lenbach, Jakob Nussbaum, Franz von Stuck, Wilhelm Trübner, Fritz von Uhde and Max Liebermann, including the “Wirtshaus in Overveen” (tavern in Overveen) that should come up for sale at auction house Hampel in 2005. A list of the entire collection was destroyed during the war, so that the collection as a whole can not be reconstructed that easily. There is only one copy of an inventory dated appr. around the year 1910 in the archives of the Berlin Art Library. Flersheim was a board member of the Städel Museum Association and was a Director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein. In 1921 he donated the famous “Violinist at the Window” by Otto Scholderer to the Städel Museum which today is one of the most beautiful works in the collection. Previously Flersheim gave the Carl Spitzweg’s painting “Der Einsiedler vor der Klause” (The Hermit before the cell) to the Städel as a gift.
Martin Flersheim died in 1935, before the Nazis were able to exercise more reprisals against him. His brother, however, the Frankfurt ivory dealer Ernst Flersheim was in 1937 forced to sell his art collection to emigrate to Amsterdam. Ernst Flersheim and his wife died in 1944 in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. The art collection was dispersed. After the war his heirs negotiated with the Wuppertal Von der Heydt-Museum about the restitution of some of the artworks.
A painting by Hans von Marées, “Tatar horse”, belonged to the paintings that had to be auctioned in 1937 to finance the emigration of Ernst Flersheim and his wife. In 1946, the picture came into the possession of the museum. The Museum had a restitution claim by the heir for the painting confiscated due to persecution but refused the return of the work at first. A legal claim on the restitution of the paintings was not given, but however, a voluntary restitution to the heirs for moral reasons was advised by the city of Wuppertal in a hearing. In 2003 it was finally restituted to the heirs of Ernst Flersheims. In 2007, it was offered by the auction house Christie’s to auction but remained unsold.
Martin Flersheims widow Florence, which had the American nationality, emigrated after her husband’s death with the son via Holland to the United States. After 1945, they claimed the restitution of works of art they had to sell before emigration by the city of Frankfurt. The correspondence between the attorney in charge Dr. Fritz Mertens and the city of Frankfurt for several years is filed at the Institute for Urban History of Frankfurt and provides some information concerning the collection: a part of the art collection Mrs. Florence Flersheim sold with the help of Dr. Mertens to the Städtische Galerie (Municipal Gallery) in 1938 (works by Arnold Böcklin, Fritz von Uhde, Louis Eysen, Johann Friedrich Morgenstern). After the war she claimed that it had be sold under value and without the access on this money – to pay the overdue flight tax. Other parts of the Flersheim collection came to Holland, where it was confiscated after the invasion of German troops from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Operations Staff Reich Leader Rosenberg). These works of art could possibly have been gathered by the Allies in the Central Collecting Points. In the American archives therefore a request of Martin Flersheim’s son Frederick can be found, who also inquired the whereabouts of the extensive library in addition to the art collection. From the latter only a small part could be discovered in Offenbach Central Collecting Point. As the art collection was stolen in Amsterdam, Frederick Flersheim was referred to Dutch authorities, since an application for restitution could only be made by the Dutch Government (restitution to private individuals was not intended). On April 07, 1947, however, Chief of the MFA & A Section Theodore A. Heinrich confirmed that there were no works of art from the Flersheim Collection in Wiesbaden Collecting Point.
Works of art from this collection are still a matter of restitution requests. Besides the aforementioned Liebermann paintings two paintings by Jacob Nussbaum were restituted to the heirs of Martin Flersheim in 2011. Even today the Lost Art Database lists 78 paintings whose whereabouts are unknown. The case Flersheim is not closed yet.