Adolph Menzel (1815-1905)
In the "Jardin des Plantes"
gouache, 8.66 x 13.78 in. (22 x 35 cm)
Adolph Menzel’s painting In the "Jardin des Plantes," the main botanical garden in Paris, was owned by the Jewish businessman Alfred Sommerguth and his wife Gertrud. Born in 1859 in Magdeburg, Germany, Alfred made his fortune as the director and co-owner of the tobacco company Loeser & Wolff. After selling his shares in 1920, he worked as an official of the Ministry of Interior in Berlin in charge of city planning. Alfred and Gertrud were known for their art collection, which consisted of 106 paintings, by both Old Masters and contemporaries of their time. The Menzel, previously in the collection of Eduard L. Behrens, was purchased by Alfred Sommerguth in 1936 from an art dealer in Berlin.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Alfred was working in the Ministry of Interior. As a Jewish man he was viewed with deep suspicion and by the late 1930s he had been ordered to register all his assets, including his art collection, with the Nazi authorities. In order to pay the huge taxes imposed on Jewish households, as well as the so-called “flight tax” that would allow him and Gertrud to leave Germany, Alfred was forced to sell the majority of his collection at the Hans W. Lange auction house in Berlin on February 7, 1939. In the catalogue of the sale, the Menzel is listed as coming from the Behrens Collection, and as “on the protection list of nationally valuable art monuments in Germany.” Another Menzel from the Sommerguths’ collection, a drawing, was sold to the Städel Museum for RM 960.
Alfred and Gertrud were able to escape Germany in 1941, first via Switzerland, then to Cuba, and finally New York. Alfred caught typhoid fever during his stay in Cuba, and the freezing of their accounts by Nazi authorities, left the couple destitute. Alfred died on October 15, 1950 in New York, and Gertrud four years later, on April 8, 1954.
In 2011 a highly publicized story appeared in the press, detailing the return of one of Alfred Sommerguth’s paintings to his heirs. Madame La Suire, by Albert von Keller, was discovered at the Kunsthaus Zürich by chance, during an exhibition on Keller organized by the Kunsthaus. It had been donated to the museum in 2006 by the widow of Oskar Mueller, a Keller collector. The heirs agreed to leave the painting with the Swiss museum, with an added text panel detailing its provenance. This was the fourth painting returned to the Sommerguth estate in three years, including a painting by Karl Blechen pulled from sale at Sotheby’s in 2008. Jardin des Plantes has not appeared on the market since 1939, and its current whereabouts are unknown.