The adventures of the little butterfly catcher

Karl Spitzweg: Der Schmetterlingsfänger („Butterfly hunter), 1840, Museum Wiesbaden

It’s that slightly bizarre appearance, inherent in many Spitzweg paintings that also characterizes the Butterfly Catcher. In the foreground of a tropical landscape in muted brown-green tones surreal giant blue butterflies are fluttering around, almost like extraterrestrial creatures. In the background of the painting the hunter of this delicate insects is lurking in his white robe, in his left hand a red umbrella, the butterfly net in his right hand expectantly pointing forward. The reflection of the glasses disallows to see the impression in his eyes. These otherworldly character seems to originate from another planet. Despite its small size (it’s only 31 x 25 cm) it is an exciting small painting – with no less exciting provenance.

It was this little Spitzweg painting which led me to the topic of Nazi Looted Art. In a speech about the art of the 19th century at the University of Mainz the speaker talked – amongst others – about the „Butterfly Hunter“. A request from the audience was, „But that’s Nazi-looted art, stored in Wiesbaden“. And in fact, the Spitzweg painting had an adventurous journey.

Today you can admire this work of art in the Museum Wiesbaden. It is stored there as a „permanent loan from the Federal Republik“ as the rightful owner can not be determined. For this reason it is listed in the Lost Art Database under the number 219 281 and can also be found in the database of the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (BADV) as fund notice:

Mü.-Karteikarten – Bestand BADV (Deutschland) < Münchener Nr.: 2241/1 Linz-Nr. (laut DB Sonderauftrag Linz): 187

The provenance researchers of the Federal Government could find out something about itsprovenance: The catalogue raisonee by Siegfried Wichmann (2002) lists the painting with the number 378 and shows an illustration on page 226. According to this source, it was from 1906 to 1931 in the collection of Max von Bleichert in Leipzig. Previously it was according to an auction catalog from 09 / 02/10/1904 in possession of art dealer Bangel, Frankfurt am Main, under the name „Der Professor auf der Schmetterlingsjagd““. At a unknown point in time the painting came t0 the art gallery Karl Eysser, Munich. When exactly it came into his possession, is no longer explorable as the business records were completely destroyed during an air raid on Munich. However, he was a specialist for the Munich-Düsseldorf-painting school and dealt explicitly with artists such as Spitzweg, Defregger or Grützner. Maybe the Butterfly Catcher was already in his possession for a long time, possibly before 1933. Eysser in turn sold it in 1938 to the Gallery Almas, Munich, who sold the painting to the German Reich. Behind „Gallery Almas“ stands the Munich art dealer Maria Almas-Dietrich, one of the preferred art agents of the Third Reich. She also sold or brokered art for Hitler for the Linz museum project, according to Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg at least 270 paintings.

It was intended for the Sonderauftrag Linz, the Führer Adolf Hitler’s Museum, known to be preferring German artists of the 19th century and especially Carl Spitzweg. Although this museum project has never been realized, the butterfly catcher received the Linz inventory number 187.

After the war, the „Butterfly Hunter“ came to the Central Collecting Point in Munich, where he received the MUE number mü2241 /1. In 1945 Maria Almas-Dietrich was interrogated by the art protection officers of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section about her business practices. Karl Eysser also was questioned in 1951 by the Monuments Men.

Adolf Bleichert

According to the BADV database there is no evidence of any Nazi-related loss with this painting. Not yet been explored conclusively, in my opinion, is the transfer of ownership between Max von Bleichert and the art dealer Karl Eysser. Max von Bleichert was the son of Adolf von Bleichert, from who he took over the Leipzig-based company Adolf Bleichert & Co., a factory for cable cars, after his fathers death in 1901 – together with his brother Paul. The brothers ran the business with several thousand employees and several locations successfully. Due to the global economic crisis, they had to sign bankruptcy in 1943 though. The business was continued by the rescue company Bleichert Transport GmbH in a lesser extent. Whether the Bleichert brothers continued working in this company could not be determined. During the war the factory was used for the defense industry.

Maybe Max von Bleichert was forced to sell its art collection during the bankruptcy of his company. In this case a Nazi-related withdrawal could be denied.

Thus, this work of art is now in the possession of the Federal Republic of Germany, the legal successor to the Third Reich, and can be exhibited in a public museum, so that we can still enjoy the strange little man with the blank look in search of an exotic butterfly.


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