Nazi-looted Matisse painting returned to Frankfurt

It travelled around Europe for a decade, passed through the hands of a senior Nazi officer and was displayed in a Paris museum for almost 60 years.

But an original Matisse painting, looted by the Nazis from a German Jewish family, has finally been returned to its rightful owner's home city.

Le Mur Rose (The Pink Wall), worth about £174,000, was handed to Frankfurt's Jewish Museum last Thursday by Magen David Adom UK, which was willed the 1898 oil canvas in a legacy. The Frankfurt municipality, the German government and a local bank shared the cost of the painting.

Watching the Matisse being unveiled in its new home, Henry Ejdelbaum, vice-chair of MDA UK, beamed."It's a special feeling to see it hanging here in the museum. We all feel good about it being back in the city," he said.

Le Mur Rose was bought in Paris before the First World War by Frankfurt resident Harry Fuld. He had made a fortune from telecommunications equipment, but his business was appropriated by the Nazis in the 1930s.

When his son, Harry Jr, fled from Berlin to Britain in 1936, the family art collection was also looted by the Nazis.

In January 1943 around 80 items from the collection were auctioned in Germany. The Matisse was not included in the sale but it is now known that it got into the hands of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who was responsible for transporting the Zyklon B poison used in concentration camp gas chambers.

After his death at the end of the war, Gerstein's widow led investigators to a cache of stolen items near their home. It included Le Mur Rose. In 1951 it was moved to a Paris museum along with hundreds of other objects stolen by the Nazis, which were then returned to the artists' home countries.

Harry Fuld Jr died in 1963, leaving his estate to his housekeeper Gisela Martin. She in turn bequeathed it to Magen David Adom UK, which four years ago appointed lawyers to trace items lost and looted from the Fuld estate.

Lawyer Imke Gielen worked on behalf of MDA to trace the Fulds' lost art collection. She said: "The French had absolutely no written evidence that the true owner of Le Mur Rose was Harry Fuld.

"Restitution is a painstaking task. The research is very difficult. It's very satisfying to complete it because these are not normal legal cases. This is a fitting conclusion."

Felix Semmelroth, Frankfurt's culture secretary, said: "To return the painting to Frankfurt now is very special. It's a real homecoming. Giving it back to the Jewish Museum is a special event and we owe gratitude to the people who allowed this to happen."

Mr Ejdelbaum said: "For MDA it's not just about the money or getting the painting back. Like this everybody wins. The city of Frankfurt feels good that it is looking after a former citizen. We can do our work in Israel, which is what we believe the Fulds ultimately wanted. For all Jews, war restitution is a very important subject. We can contribute a little bit to give the assets back to Jewish people or communities and that's a good thing."

Last updated: 4:49pm, February 18 2010