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A Violin: Is Germany Devoted to Making Amends with its Nazi Past?

The violin in question, valued at €150,000, currently resides at the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation. Purchased in good faith in 1974 by the violinist Sophie Hagemann - its mysteriously silent life stems from its disappearance after 1938 and raises suspicion regarding its resurfacing in Cologne, 1974. Following Sophie Hagemann's death in 2010, the rare violin was bequeathed to her foundation - which endeavours to promote young musical talent - with the intention of being loaned to students harbouring promising ability.


The instrument itself was crafted by Giuseppe Guarneri - a celebrated Italian luthierin, in 1706. It was acquired by Felix Hildesheimer in Stuttgart, Germany, in January 1938. Hildesheimer was Jewish and the owner of a music supplies store. His store was subject to Nazi torment, losing all of its non-Jewish customers and was eventually seized by the Nazis in the late 1930s. Hoping to flee to Australia with his wife, the question of whether he sold the valuable violin under duress has been at the forefront of the ongoing dispute.

“We should assume that the violin was sold as a retail product in his music shop”.

- A statement from Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation.

The dispute is threatening to sabotage Germany's commitment to Nazi-looted repatriation. The foundation argues that the violin was sold at a regular retail value. However, the German government’s Advisory Commission claims that the violin was almost certainly sold under duress, or seized by the Nazis shortly after his death. After being unable to attain an Australian visa in 1939, Hildesheimer died by suicide and his wife Helene was deported to the South of France - fleeing to the US in 1941- she is now survived by her grandchildren, Sidney Strauss and David Sand.

2016 saw a mediation panel find it “very likely” that the rare Guarneri violin was sold under duress or seized by the Nazis after Hildesheimer's death. The Limbach Commission - which handles Nazi-looted art disputes - informed the foundation that it could keep the violin seeing that it compensates the Hildesheimer grandchildren €100,000 euros. To date, the foundation has not attempted to compensate the heirs and has argued against the statement of the panel. A recent New York Times article reported a statement from the Advisory Commission which demonstrates a loss of patience with the reluctant Hagemann Foundation.

” The efforts to contest the recommendation — four years after it was issued — by suggesting that the Jewish dealer sold the violin under perfectly normal conditions mean the foundation is not just contravening existing principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art, it is also ignoring accepted facts about life in Nazi Germany".

As the commission is not a court, it holds no legal prowes in terms of enforcing its recommendations. The New York Times article also captured a statment from a spokesperson for Germany’s federal Culture Ministry, who reiterated that there are “no tools available to compel a private foundation to implement a recommendation by the commission". As it stands - without legal reinforcement - rightful owners of Nazi-looted art can expect on-going disputes, seeing as commission recommendations can be ignored without subsequent consequences.

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