In contrast to the recently reported ownership tussle over a Van Gogh, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced on Monday (16th November) that it would be returning a painting in its collection to its rightful, Jewish owners.

The announcement represented the culmination of a detailed, decade-long investigation into the provenance of the painting by German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which entered MoMA’s collection in 1949 as “Dunes at Fehmarn” (1912).

Suspicions over the painting’s provenance arose after MoMA published a public database of works in its collection acquired during the years before and during World War II. One listing in particular caught the attention of the descendants of Berlin writer Max Fischer.  “Dunes at Fehmarn” struck a chord with the family who recalled Fischer’s sadness over the loss of the artworks he left behind upon fleeing Germany in 1935.

This was reflected in a 1939 letter which Fischer’s sister-in-law Anne wrote to a lawyer:

“Max is very much moaning about his lost fortune and tells everybody how they [Nazis] not only robbed him of his home and profession but also that they robbed him of all his property.”

Despite this connection, there were numerous obstacles in the way of establishing title to the painting. While the work originally entered MoMA as “Dunes at Fehmarn”, a title given to it by Berlin collector Kurt Feldhäusser, this was changed to “Sand Hills in Engadine” (1917-18) on the advice of Kirchner expert Donald Gordon.

The jumbled provenance was compounded further by Kirchner’s catalogue raisonnée. It stated that the painting had been confiscated by the Nazis as “degenerate art” and had been in the collection of Essen’s Folkwang Museum.

Undeterred, lawyer for the Fischer family, David Rowland wrote to MoMA in 2004 to make enquiries. This prompted the Museum to commence the detective work which would uncover a series of unfortunate documentation errors including the fact that Kirchner’s catalogue contained incorrect information.

Nonetheless, MoMA dismissed Rowland’s claim on the basis that a list of works in the family’s collection of German Modernist art compiled in 1925 by Max Fischer’s mother Rosy did not contain any reference to a Fehmarn or Engadine landscape.

The breakthrough moment came when a lawyer on the case found that early 20th century picture postcards of the mountains in the south-eastern Berlin suburb of Grünau bore an uncanny resemblance to the subject of the Kirchner painting, with its watchtower and pathway running up through the sand-hills.

This, according to MoMA curator of painting and sculpture Leah Dickerman, was compelling evidence that the subject of the painting was neither the Danish “Dunes at Fehmarn” or the Swiss sand-hills of Engadine but the Müggelberge Hills in Grünau, a south-eastern suburb of Berlin. A perfect match for the entry in Rosy Fischer’s 1925 list, which records a Kirchner painting entitled Kirchner “Sand Hills (Bei Grünau)” (1913).

“It was only when we were able to crack that nut that suddenly we had the right title and were able to say, yes, this work did belong to the Fischers,” said Dickerman.

The remaining pieces of the Kirchner puzzle then fell into place. It was confirmed that the painting was in Germany with Max Fischer at the start of World War II and remained there when he fled in 1935.

In 1938, the painting was one of two bought by Kurt Feldhäusser, which were recorded as having been in Max Fischer’s collection. It was at this point that it was mistakenly referred to as “Dunes at Fehmarn”, which clung to the painting when it was eventually consigned to the Weyhe Gallery in New York from whom MoMA bought it in 1949.

The heirs to the painting are still deciding what they will do with it in light of MoMA’s announcement but they are said to be very grateful to the Museum for the research, which verified their good title. Rowland congratulated the Museum for reaching its decision:

“It’s never easy for any museum to return a work, and I applaud MoMA for doing that”

MoMA Director Glenn Lowry reflected on the implications of the discovery:

“It’s a really successful example of how all parties working together brought us to the right point—which is the understanding that a work of art in our collection actually belonged to the heirs of Max Fischer.”

There’s no sense of loss… It feels like we’re doing the right thing.”