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The Windmill – Rüdenberg Heirs v. City of Hannover

Max Rüdenberg, a Jewish salesman and art collector, acquired several modern art pieces beginning in the late 1910s. Due to the discriminatory Nazi politics, the Rüdenberg family was forced to sell the art collection, including the painting “The Windmill” by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.




Citation: Marius Müller, Alessandro Chechi, Marc-André Renold, “The Windmill – Rüdenberg Heirs v. City of Hannover”, Platform ArThemis (, Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva.

Max Rüdenberg, a Jewish salesman and art collector, acquired several modern art pieces beginning in the late 1910s. Due to the discriminatory Nazi politics, the Rüdenberg family was forced to sell the art collection, including the painting “The Windmill” by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, together with other properties, before being deported. The painting “The Windmill” was returned to the Rüdenberg heirs in January 2017.


I. Chronology

Nazi looted art

  • Since 1916: Max Rüdenberg acquired several works of art in exhibitions organized by the Kestner Society (Kestner-Gesellschaft), an association of collectors and patrons of contemporary art based in Hannover, of which he was one of the founding members.[1]
  • 1922: The Kestner Society purchased 13 watercolours by the painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. It is strongly assumed that Max Rüdenberg acquired the work “Marsh landscape with red windmill” (hereinafter “The Windmill”) in this context.[2]
  • 1938/1939: Due to the Nazi discriminatory legislation, Max Rüdenberg and his wife Margarethe were forced to sell their collection to be able to make the payments according to the so called “Jewish Property Tax” (Judenvermögensabgabe). It is assumed that Max Rüdenberg sold “The Windmill” on this occasion.
  • Summer 1939: Margrit and Bernhard Sprengel acquired “The Windmill” from the art dealer Erich Pfeiffer in Hannover.
  • Autumn 1942: Max and Margarethe Rüdenberg were murdered in Theresienstadt concentration camp.[3] Their children, Ernst and Eva Rüdenberg, had fled to South Africa and Great Britain between 1936 and 1939.
  • July 1946: Ernst and Eva Rüdenberg began searching the collection.
  • 1952: “The Windmill” was presented to the public by the Sprengel family.
  • 1969: Bernhard Sprengel donated “The Windmill” to the City of Hannover.[4] Later it became part of the Sprengel Museum’s collection.
  • April 2013: The lawyer of the Rüdenberg’s heirs demanded the restitution of “The Windmill” to the City of Hannover.
  • July 2015: The claimants and the City of Hannover agreed to submit the case to the Advisory Commission on the Return of Cultural Property Seized as a result of Nazi Persecution, especially from Jewish Possession[5] (hereinafter “Advisory Commission”).
  • January 2017: The Advisory Commission recommended the restitution of the watercolour to the Rüdenberg heirs.[6]

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II. Dispute Resolution Process

Institutional facilitator – Mediation – Negotiation – Settlement agreement

  • Direct negotiations over the restitution of “The Windmill” between the Rüdenberg heirs and the City of Hannover were unsuccessful in 2013. The parties disagreed on the provenance of the Schmidt-Rottluff watercolour as it could not be proven without doubt that it formed part of the Rüdenberg collection.
  • The parties agreed on a different manner to resolve the dispute in 2015, when they eventually submitted it to the Advisory Commission. Established in 2003 by the German Government, the Advisory Commission “can be called upon to mediate in cases of dispute involving the restitution of cultural assets which were confiscated during the Third Reich, especially from persecuted Jewish citizens and are now held by museums, libraries, archives or other public institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany. The Commission can mediate between the institutions which manage the collections and the former owners or heirs of the cultural goods, if desired by both sides. It can also offer recommendations for settling differences of opinion”.[7]

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III. Legal Issues

Ownership – Procedural issue

  • The Rüdenberg heirs supported their restitution claim before the Advisory Commission with an inventory document of the Sprengel collection and the documentation in the catalogue edited by Gunther Thiem. The former document reads: “Purchased at Pfeiffer, Hannover 1939, previous owner: unknown”. However, it appears that this inventory document was modified – presumably by Margrit Sprengel in the 1960s – as stating that the previous possessor was the “Family Max Rüdenberg, Hannover-Limmer”. The document in the catalogue of Gunther Thiem, at that time director of the Stuttgart State Gallery Print Cabinet and expert of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, stated about the provenance of “The Windmill”: “Max Rüdenberg, Hannover-Limmer (probably from a collection of the Kestner Society), Bernhard Sprengel, Hannover”.[8] Consequently, it could be presumed that “The Windmill” was sold, together with other artworks, due to the discriminatory Nazi legislation. The City of Hannover argued against this “prima-facie-evidence”.[9]
  • The doctrine of “prima-facie-evidence” was developed by the Supreme Restitution Court to establish a relation of causality between the loss of (cultural) assets and Nazi legislation.[10] Prima-facie-evidence required: (a) that the context of loss is proven; and (b) that historical knowledge exists, which gives information on typical procedures in such cases. In the case of “The Windmill”, neither the acquisition of the painting for the Rüdenberg collection nor its sale in the 1930s due to Nazi discrimination could be proven. The Advisory Commission decided in favour of the heirs of Nazi victims only due to the higher probability of Max Rüdenberg being the original owner.[11]

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IV. Adopted Solution

Unconditional restitution

  • With a binding recommendation of 10 January 2017, the Advisory Commission recommended the unconditional restitution of “The Windmill” to the Rüdenberg heirs.
  • The City Council of Hannover complied with the recommendation by returning the Schmidt-Rottluff watercolour on 27 June 2017.[12]

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V. Comment

  • The main feature of the present case is that it could be demonstrated neither that “The Windmill” had been in the Rüdenberg’s collection nor that it was sold under duress by the Rüdenberg family around 1938.
  • The City of Hannover contended that a presumption in favour of Max Rüdenberg (“prima-facie-evidence”) as the original owner could neither result from the Principles adopted on the occasion of the Washington Conference on Nazi-Confiscated Art,[13] nor the “Law No. 59” concerning the restitution of Nazi-seized assets,[14] nor the respective German recommendation.[15]
  • Considering possibilities of reforming the Advisory Commission, Matthias Weller, then Professor at the EBS University for Business and Law of Wiesbaden, affirmed that it would be necessary a “Restatement of Restitution Principles” in order to guarantee more homogeneous argumentation and consequently coherent and fair solutions.[16] This case surely supports this claim.
  • At present “The Windmill” is not accessible to the public, but it is hoped, also by the City of Hannover, that this situation will change in the near future.

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VI. Sources

a. Bibliography

  • Anton, Michael, Rechtshandbuch Kulturgüterschutz und Kunstrestitutionsrecht, Vol. II Zivilrecht – Guter Glaube im internationalen Kunsthandel, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2010.
  • Schwarz, Walter, Die Wiedergutmachung nationalsozialistischen Unrechts durch die Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Vol. I: Rückerstattung nach den Gesetzen der Alliierten Mächte, München: C.H.Beck: 1974.
  • Kurtz, Thorsten, Das Oberste Rückerstattungsgericht in Herford. Eine Untersuchung zu Vorgeschichte, Errichtung und Einrichtung eines internationalen Revisionsgerichts in Deutschland, Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2014.
  • Voigt, Vanessa-Maria, Kunsthändler und Sammler der Moderne im Nationalsozialismus. Die Sammlung Sprengel 1934 bis 1945, Berlin: Reimer Verlag, 2007.
  • Voigt, Vanessa-Maria, “Provenance Research at the Sprengel Museum Hannover. The Margrit and Bernhard Sprengel Collection from 1934 to 1945”, in Vitalizing Memory. International Perspectives on Provenance Research, ed. American Association of Museums, Washington: American Association of Museums, 2005, 104-107.
  • Voigt, Vanessa-Maria, “Das Schicksal der Sammlung Max Rüdenberg in Hannover”, Hannoversche Geschichtsblätter Neue Folge 60 (2006): 83-90.
  • Weller, Matthias, “Gedanken zur Reform der Limbach-Kommission”, in Kunst und Recht – Rückblick, Gegenwart und Zukunft, Tagungsband des Zehnten Heidelberger Kunstrechtstags am 21. und 22. Oktober 2016, ed Matthias Weller/Nicolai B. Kemle/Thomas Dreier, Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2017, 37-50.

b. Legislation

  • Verordnungsblatt fuer die Britische Zone. Amtliches Organ zur Verkuendung von Rechtsverordnungen der Zentralverwaltungen. Nr. 26, 1949.

c. Documents

  • “Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art 1998.” Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • “Empfehlung der Beratenden Kommission in der Sache Erben Rüdenberg ./. Stadt Hannover, Magdeburg – 10.01.2017”. Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • “Erklärung der Bundesregierung, der Länder und der kommunalen Spitzenverbände zur Auffindung und zur Rückgabe NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogenen Kulturgutes, insbesondere aus jüdischem Besitz.” Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • “Protokoll – 4. Sitzung des Kulturausschusses am Freitag, 10. März 2017.” Accessed 25 December 2017.$FILE/Druckversion.pdf.
  • “Landeshauptstadt Hannover, Informationsdrucksache Nr. 1652/2015.” Accessed 25 December 2017.$FILE/Druckversion.pdf.
  • “Pressemeldung vom 12.01.2017: Landeshauptstadt Hannover folgt der Empfehlung der Limbach-Kommission: Aquarell von Karl Schmidt-Rottluff ‘Marschlandschaft mit rotem Windrad’ (1922) soll an Erben zurückgegeben werden.” Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • “Beschluss des Wiedergutmachungsamtes beim Landgericht Hannover, 07. April 1951, StAH RA Nr. 32.” Digital reproduction by the Stadtarchiv Hannover kindly submitted on 19 October 2017.

d. Media

  • Andreas Förster, “Kriminalistischer Dienst an der Kunst,” Sächsische Zeitung. Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • Daniel Alexander Schacht, “Hannover verliert Klassiker des Expressionismus”, Hannoversche Allgemeine. Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • Andreas Förster, “Ein Indizien-Prozess,” Frankfurter Rundschau. Accessed 25 December 2017.
  • Catharine Hickley, “Nazi-Loot Panel Asks Sprengel Museum to Return Schmidt-Rottluff Work to Heirs,” The Art Newspaper. Accessed 25 December 2017.

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[1] The collection of Max Rüdenberg comprised Modern art pieces and East Asian art. See Hickley, “Nazi-Loot Panel Asks Sprengel Museum to Return Schmidt-Rottluff Work to Heirs”.

[2] On the main facts see Voigt, Kunsthändler und Sammler der Moderne im Nationalsozialismus, p. 262 ff.

[3] Schacht, “Hannover verliert Klassiker des Expressionismus”.

[4] Landeshauptstadt Hannover, Protokoll – 4. Sitzung des Kulturausschusses am Freitag 10. März 2017, pp. 10-11.

[5] Beratende Kommission im Zusammenhang mit der Rückgabe NS-verfolgungsbedingt entzogener Kulturguts, insbesondere aus jüdischem Besitz, also known as the “Looted Art Commission” or “Limbach-Commission”.

[6] Landeshauptstadt Hannover, Pressemeldung vom 12.01.2017.

[7] See at :

[8] Landeshauptstadt Hannover, Informationsdrucksache Nr. 1652/2015, p. 7; see also Förster, “Kriminalistischer Dienst an der Kunst”.

[9] Beratende Kommission, Empfehlung, p. 4.

[10] Anton, Rechtshandbuch Kulturgüterschutz, vol. II, p. 439 ff.; see also Handreichung zur Gemeinsamen Erklärung vom November 2007, pp. 93-94.

[11] See Voigt, Kunsthändler und Sammler der Moderne im Nationalsozialismus, p. 262-285; Voigt, “Provenance Research at the Sprengel Museum Hannover”, pp. 104-107; and Voigt, “Das Schicksal der Sammlung Max Rüdenberg in Hannover”, pp. 83-90.

[12] Förster, “Ein Indizien-Prozess”.

[13] On the initiative of the United States, the conference took place in December 1998 in order to find a general solution to the problem of the cultural assets looted by the Nazis.

[14] The “Law No. 59” (VOBl. für die Britische Zone 1949 Nr. 26, p. 152 ff.) was passed by the military government for the British occupation zone, which included the City of Hannover. This law regulated the restitution of assets lost in the period 30 January 1933 - 8 May 1945 due to discrimination based on race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.

[15] Landeshauptstadt Hannover, Informationsdrucksache Nr. 1652/2015, p. 7.

[16] Weller, Gedanken zur Reform der Limbach-Kommission, p. 43.


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