A violin constructed by Giuseppe Guarneri, an eighteenth-century violin maker from Cremona known as del Gesù (of Jesus), has become the center of a controversy over the legacies of Nazi coercion and looting of artworks belonging to Jewish victims of Nazi intimidation, discrimination, and the Holocaust.
Felix Hildesheimer, a Jewish music instrument dealer, purchased the Guarneri violin in 1938, perhaps hoping to sell it abroad. Hildesheimer and his wife apparently were attempting to depart Germany and move to Australia, but they could not get the appropriate visas. Felix Hildesheimer committed suicide and the violin disappeared from the records….
The New York Times reports: “The government’s Advisory Commission on the return of Nazi-looted cultural property determined in 2016 that the violin was almost certainly either sold by Hildesheimer under duress, or seized by the Nazis after his death. In its first case concerning a musical instrument, the panel recommended that the current holder, the Franz Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation, a music education organization, should pay the dealer’s grandsons compensation of 100,000 euros, around $121,000; in return, the foundation could keep the instrument, which it planned to lend to talented violin students. But the foundation is refusing to pay.”
Peace and reconciliation efforts often depend on governmental commissions or non-governmental bodies to act as mediators in cases of human rights violations and war crimes.
The case of the Hildesheimer violin exposes the vulnerability of peace and reconciliation processes to subversion by parties that refuse to conform to its findings.
The German Advisory Commission has no legal power to enforce its findings that the Hofmann and Hagemann Foundation should pay compensation to Felix Hildesheimer’s descendents.
If the Hofmann and Sophie Hagemann Foundation refuses to pay compensation in this case, the entire German mechanism for reconciliation could break down. These institutions depend on precedents as well as government and public support in order to operate effectively.
Scholars and students of peace and conflict studies need to follow such cases and uphold the work of peace and reconciliation institutions.
This case also is a reminder that historical research is needed to assist in contemporary legal cases and peace and reconciliation processes. Academic historians and professional researchers should be directly engaged in those processes, as well as training historians to conduct archival research and manuscript studies for legal cases with political implications.
The New York Times reports on the Hildesheimer violin.
NPR reports on Giuseppe Guarnieri’s violins and the rare musical instrument market. The Smithsonian Institution and the Stradavari Society provide overviews of the Guarnieri family of violin makers. The Local has an article about violin workshops in Cremona.