Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944)
Painting No. 2 (1926)
oil on canvas, 19.72 x 20.16 in. (50.10 x 51.20 cm)
Painted by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian in 1926, Painting No. 2 (Schilderij No. 2 in Dutch) was owned by Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers (née Schneider), who loaned it to the Provincial Museum in Hanover (Provinzialmuseum Hannover) in 1926. Her works held at the museum were confiscated by the Nazi authorities in 1937 in their crusade against so-called “degenerate” art. After its confiscation, the Nazis allocated Painting No. 2 to German art dealer Karl Buchholz, who sent it to his business associate Curt Valentin in New York. It is unknown what happened to the painting after this and its current whereabouts remain unknown.
Sophie Schneider was born in Germany in 1891, and was an art historian, collector, and author. She and her first husband, Paul Erich Küppers — the artistic director of the Kestner Society (Kestnergesellschaft), a progressive and innovative art institute in Hanover — had assembled a small collection of modern art that included works by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Fernand Léger. Paul tragically died in 1922 of the Spanish flu, leaving her behind with their two sons. Sophie befriended Russian avant-garde artist and designer El Lissitzky soon after Paul’s death, and in 1927 she moved to Moscow to join her soon-to-be second husband.
Sophie decided not to bring sixteen works — thirteen were from her personal collection and three had been consigned to her care — with her to Russia, instead loaning them to the Provincial Museum in Hanover prior to her departure. The works were displayed there for over a decade until August 17, 1937, when a large portion of the museum’s holdings were seized by Adolf Ziegler and a delegation from the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (Reichskammer der bildenden Künste or RKdbK), which was acting on orders from Joseph Goebbels and the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda or RMVP) to confiscate these “degenerate” works .These targeted works that had been characterized as impure were purged from public collections but only if German-owned. Therefore, the property of Sophie, who upon her emigration and marriage to Lissitsky in Russia had become a Soviet citizen, should have been exempted from the Nazi confiscations. Nevertheless, with the authorization of Ziegler, the confiscation delegation decided to subject her collection to “special treatment” and seized it. This “purification” of German collections continued until March 1938.
Once in the possession of the Nazis, Painting No. 2 was allocated to be sold via the German art dealer Karl Buchholz to raise funds for the Reich specifically in foreign currency. Buchholz sold looted art from both museums and Jewish dealers and was one of four dealers authorized by Goebbels in late 1938 to liquidate exploitable works abroad. This painting was sent to Niederschönhausen Palace on the outskirts of Berlin in August 1938. The palace had become a showroom and storage facility for these “internationally usable” works.
By that November, the painting was in the possession of Buchholz. By late January 1939 it was placed for sale with him on commission. That year, Buchholz sent the work to his associate Curt Valentin in New York. Valentin was a German Jew who had previously worked for Buchholz in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1937 and opened the Buchholz Gallery, named after his mentor. Valentin had been given permission by the Nazi authorities to sell German art abroad and would often travel back to Europe in the late 1930s, acquiring works from the Niederschönhausen Palace and the infamous 1939 Fischer auction in Lucerne, Switzerland. Valentin's legacy is still debated; however, he was raided by the US Federal authorities in 1944 under the Trading with the Enemy Act and works in his gallery were seized.
Valentin acquired Painting No. 2, however, according to a June 1939 letter between Buchholz and the RMVP, he sent it back to Buchholz as it was damaged during transport. What happened to the painting after Valentin’s possession is unclear. In the "degenerate" art inventory produced by the Ministry of Propaganda around 1942, the painting is listed under inventory number 7034, and designated as having been allocated to Buchholz and its fate marked as “V” for Verkauf, or sale, at the price of 200 in an unknown foreign currency. Its current whereabouts are unknown.
Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers was widowed a second time in 1941 and deported by the Soviets after the war as an enemy alien to Novosibirsk, Siberia, where she lived with her children by El Lissitzky until her death in 1978, unsuccessful in the recovery of the thirteen works loaned to the Provincial Museum from her collection in her lifetime. Since the early 1990s, her heirs have sought compensation and restitution, with, for example, the successful restitution of a Klee painting from the Kiyomizu Sannenzka Museum in Kyoto, Japan, in 2001, and the awarding of compensation for a Klee painting in the Lenbachhaus Museum in 2017.