Restitution and Re-Acquisition: Three Angels with the Baby Jesus from the Saulmann collection to stay in the Bode-Museum


The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz has once again restored to its rightful heirs a work from the Skulpturensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin that was seized from its owners as a result of Nazi persecution. The 15th-century group of angels was then re-acquisitioned for the collection. 

Thanks to an external tip-off, the Skulpturensammlung was able to clarify the provenance of the work. Prior to 1936, it had belonged to the Jewish art collectors Ernst and Agathe Saulmann, who were subjected to persecution during the Nazi era. The couple fled to Italy in late 1935. Since they had not paid the Reich Flight Tax, their assets were confiscated. The collection was seized and auctioned in June of 1936 at the Munich auction house of Adolf Weinmüller. Having ascertained these facts, the SPK contacted the Saulmanns’s heirs in order to return the work to them.

Michael Eissenhauer, Director-General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Director of the Skulpturensammlung and the Gemäldegalerie, said: “The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are pleased that through the generous accommodations of the heirs of Ernst and Agathe Saulmann, this important work will remain in the Bode-Museum.”

Felix de Marez Oyens explains: “Over the past six years, provenance researchers for our Berlin legal firm Von Trott zu Solz Lammek have located eleven objects from the art collection of Ernst and Agathe Saulmann: in five German museums and three private collections in other countries. My family was able to arrive at a range of agreements with all of these institutions and collectors. However the Bode-Museum was the only institution to carry out its own independent research and approach us with their results. For this we are very grateful to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, and we are convinced that my step-mother – whose grandfather, Julius Lessing, was the first Director of the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum – would have been delighted that we were able to come to this fair and amicable agreement.”

Hermann Parzinger, President of the SPK: For us it was immediately clear in this case that we would restitute the work in accordance with the Washington Principles. At the same time, I am pleased that we were able to acquire the piece for the collection in which it has been regularly exhibited for years. For that, I would like to thank the heirs.

The Saulmann Family

The German-Jewish couple Ernst (born 1881) and Agathe (born 1898) Saulmann from Eningen/Pfullingen bei Reutlingen were the proprietors of the Mechanical Cotton Weaving Mill in Eningen, and possessed an extensive art collection. Agathe was the daughter of the Berlin architect Alfred Breslauer, and one of the few female pilots in the Weimar Republic. The repression of the Nazi era led the couple to flee first of all to Italy in 1935, and then to France in 1938. In 1936, their country estate, the Erlenhof in Pfullingen, was seized and sold. On 26 and 27 June 1936, their art collection – comprising more than 100 items – and their library ended up in the auction of “Old German Art Treasures” at Adolf Weinmüller’s auction house in Munich, where they were sold. The index of owners in the auction catalogue lists “S. in R.” as the seller. In 1934, the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts) had ordered that sellers were to be masked in auction catalogues.      

Soon after, the German government stripped the Saulmanns of their German citizenship. Ernst and Agathe Saulmann were interned in France in Camp Gurs, where his health suffered heavily. He died in 1946. After the war ended, Agathe Saulmann launched a claim for restitutions, which was one of the largest in the French occupied zone. As a result of her racial persecution, she suffered from depression, and died of the effects of a suicide attempt in 1951. Her daughter from her first marriage, Nina de Marez Oyens, was her sole heir.

Three Angels with the Baby Jesus (ca. 1430–40)

This work in limewood (25.5 cm tall, 30 cm wide) depicts three floating, half-figure angels, who are holding a cloth above a band of cloud on which the sleeping baby lies. Originally the work was painted, and presumably mounted in some kind of frame. The piece issues from the workshop of Hans Multscher. Both the faces and the fabric resemble those in works by Multscher from circa 1430. Multscher, a renowned painter and sculptor who lived in Ulm from 1427 was a key figure in introducing French innovations in sculpture to the German context. His works in The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin include a sculpture of Maria Magdalena (Skulpturensammlung, Ident. no. 5923) and the wings of the so-called Wurzacher Altar (Gemäldegalerie).