Expelled, Dispossessed, Interned: The Saulmann Heir in an Interview

25.06.2018Expelled, Dispossessed, Interned: The Saulmann Heir in an Interview

A happy occasion, but a tragic story. On June 25, 2018, the SPK restituted a 15th-century wooden sculpture to the heir of Agathe and Ernst Saulmann.

Gesine Bahr conducted the interview.

Felix de Marez Oyens in front of the restituted Angel Group in the Bode Museum
Felix de Marez Oyens in front of the restituted Angel Group in the Bode Museum © SPK / Friederike Schmidt

Owners of the Mechanische Baumwollweberei Eningen, a weaving mill for cotton, the German-Jewish Saulmanns from Eningen/Pfullingen near Reutlingen were passionate art collectors. The repressive measures of the Nazi period drove the Saulmanns out of Germany in 1935. Their property was seized and sold in 1936, and their art collection was sold in a compulsory auction. A short time later the German government revoked the Saulmanns’ German citizenship. During World War II their migration brought them to France, where they were interned in Camp Gurs. Ernst Saulmann’s health never recovered from his internment and he died in 1946 at the age of 65. After the war, Agathe Saulmann sued for compensation in a case that was considered one of the largest in the French occupation zone. As a result of the racist persecution she suffered from depression and died in 1951 from the effects of an attempted suicide.

The auction catalogue of the Saulmann collection compulsory auction was long considered lost – until it was found in a Munich basement in 2013. Based on the catalogue, the Angel Group could be identified as part of the collection and was restituted to the Saulmann heir, Felix de Marez Oyens. We spoke with him.

Mr. de Marez Oyens, how are you related to the Saulmanns?

Agathe Saulmann, whose maiden name was Breslauer, was the first wife of my father, H.J. de Marez Oyens, a Dutch classicist. She was the daughter of the famous Berlin architect Alfred Breslauer. She married my father in 1915 in Berlin-Dahlem and a year later their daughter Alma Carolina Frederica, who was called Nina, was born in The Hague. I am my father’s youngest child, from his third marriage, and was born in 1946. So Nina, who died in 2005, was my half-sister.

Why did the Saulmanns flee Nazi Germany for Italy, which was under a fascist regime at the time?

The Saulmanns fled in 1935, in late December, to Florence, where they owned a house. They had to flee again later and barely survived the war first in Vichy France, and then in occupied France.

Did Nina, Agathe’s child from her first marriage, go with them into exile? What route did her migration take?

At that time Nina was living with her father in Amsterdam. After the Nazis occupied Holland, he managed to have her brought to Switzerland.

What was your reaction when the SPK approached you about restituting the Angel Group?

I was impressed by the fact that the SPK and Bode Museum contacted us on their own initiative. The Saulmann restitutions from other museums took place after our lawyer carried out research and then contacted them.

Was it difficult to decide to allow the SPK to buy back the restituted Angel Group?

The decision was easy. The offered price was absolutely commensurate, and we accepted it right away. The sculpture has been exhibited for some time in the Bode Museum and we are glad to know that it now has a permanent place in the new Berlin, the city where Agathe was born. I hope the museum curators will mention the Saulmann provenance clearly on the exhibit description.

What do you know about Ernst and Agathe Saulmann’s collection? What did it emphasize?

The Saulmann collection was conventional in that it contained old paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries and books on art history. The more adventurous objects were cars and a small single-engine airplane, which Agathe flew herself. She also smoked a pipe regularly. But I do not know if she had a pipe collection.

What happened to the other objects in the Saulmann collection?

The collection was forcibly divided up into hundreds of pieces in 1936 by Adolf Weinmüller’s auction house in Munich. Until now we have only been able to locate eleven objects, some of which were returned. For others we came to agreements similar to the one for the Angel Group. An object in the Bavarian National Museum in Munich was apparently destroyed earlier during an Allied bombing raid.

The SPK used the words “fair and just” solution to describe the restitution. Would you agree?

Yes, those are fitting words. My stepmother Agathe, whose grandfather Julius Lessing was the first director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Berlin, would have been happy if she had known about the mutual agreement.

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