Nazi-looted cultural property

Seeking a lost inheritance

The “Help Desk” has been trying to trace a Bassano painting in Southern Germany.
Susanne Meyer-Abich

In the 1920s a large crate from Italy arrived one day at the main train station in Chemnitz. Its addressee was the Jewish stocking manufacturer Ludwig Salgó (1889-1943?), who lived at Weststraße 24 with his wife Laura and their daughter Lilly. Later, Lilly would recall the happy excitement about the arrival of the shipment from Italy. It was a painting of a hunting scene: to the right, there was a rider on a white horse, and in the centre were two large dogs. Ludwig Salgó had bought the picture which was painted by a member of the Venetian Bassano family of artists in the sixteenth century.

Originally from Budapest, the Salgós had moved to Chemnitz around 1920, where Ludwig Salgó had initial success as a businessman. However, the National Socialists’ repressive measures also affected him and his family. The business went bankrupt. In 1934, the family had to move to a smaller property on Weststraße 55. Here, the Italian Old Master painting can still be seen in a photograph from circa 1938. At the age of eighteen, the daughter Lilly left Chemnitz in 1936 for Berlin, where she tried to support her parents financially with occasional work. Her mother suffered from diabetes. Since 1933, Jewish patients were excluded from billing any treatment to health insurers. They were also forbidden from receiving treatment by non-Jewish doctors.

Lilly Salgó managed to flee in the end: on 11 September 1938 she arrived in New York. Her parents were forced to move to a so-called Jew house in Annaberger Straße 4 in Chemnitz in 1939. On 3 July 1942 they were deported to the Belzec Ghetto. After 1945, Lilly Salgó tried to find her parents in vain. They were declared dead.

What happened to the Bassano in the meantime? After World War II, Lilly Salgó heard from her father’s former lawyer, who lived in Berlin at the time, that the picture had moved with the former family physician of the Salgós to Southern Germany. The picture may have been exchanged in return for medical treatment. Here, its trace disappears.

When Lilly Salgó’s family began to search again for the picture in 2020, they contacted the “Help Desk” at the German Lost Art Foundation. Initially, they were advised to register the picture in the Lost Art Database. Were it to appear in the art trade or in a museum, it could be identified and the heirs could be contacted. The photograph from the family home in Chemnitz was a rare stroke of luck: even though only part of the painting is visible, this is more information than in many other registered losses resulting from Nazi persecution, where there is sometimes no more detail than an artist name on a list.

At the same time, the “Help Desk” took up further research. Archival compensation files from the time after 1945 (“Wiedergutmachungsakten”) were scanned. Sadly, they did not offer more information about the picture, although a former housekeeper confirmed in a statement that the home of the Salgós had contained oil paintings. It is not unusual that cultural property was not listed in detail in such documentation: the process of application for compensation was often laborious, lengthy, and humiliating for victims of persecution and therefore tended to focus on financial assets such as shares, bank accounts, or pension rights, while the prospects of success for recovering furnishings and household contents may have been considered fairly low.

Nevertheless, the “Help Desk” managed to trace the Salgós former family doctor. He died childless in Bavaria in the early 1970s. Documents from the time after the death of his widow are few and far between, but one survived which included a brief reference to paintings stored at a Munich auction house. They were intended to be left to a godchild. However, this family confirmed that they had never received them. Unfortunately, no further information could be found about the stored pictures. Enquiries with the auction house also remained without result. Contact with the Bavarian district court where the wills of the physician and his widow are stored yielded the name of an executor who was still in business. Unfortunately, no documents from the time survived in his office.

The “Help Desk” continued to look for clues about a sale of the painting around 1981 in the Munich area. An enquiry at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich, which holds the archives of the art dealer firm of Böhler did not produce a result, and neither did an extensive search in libraries through editions of the “Weltkunst” art trade magazine and through art sales results of the time online and in print.   

We hope that the family’s search for the lost Bassano painting will end soon and that a fair and just solution will be found. It is possible that the picture has remained in the Munich area since the 1980s. After so many years, its history and the fate of its former owners should finally come to be known.

Text: Susanne Meyer-Abich, Head of the Help Desk for Enquiries about Cultural Assets seized in the National Socialist Era.

Search request (Lost Art Database)