Representative of many similar cultural goods and artefacts, the history of the Hall of Mirrors Spiegelsaal illustrates the acculturation of Jewish families who once were part of Hamburg's upper-class citizenry. It is also the history of a lengthy struggle for restitution and compensation. As a cultural historical source, the Hall of Mirrors Spiegelsaal represents the kind of upper-class bourgeois living that illustrates how deeply rooted Hamburg's acculturated Jews were in the city's arts and cultural life.
The Budges were Jews from Germany who had lived in the United States and since 1882 held both German and U.S. citizenship. In the U.S. Henry Budge had made a fortune as a banker and stock broker. They chose Hamburg, Emma's native city, for their retirement and moved there in 1903. In Germany the Budges were active in charity work, for example by establishing charitable foundations in Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main that focused on social issues. In Hamburg, they also became major supporters of the Museum for Arts and Crafts Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. The museum's directors, first Justus Brinckmann and later Max Sauerlandt, consulted them on the acquisition of their art collection. In return the Budges showed their appreciation by donating numerous artworks to the museum.
Upon Henry Budge's death a testation jointly made with his wife came into effect according to which their collection of decorative arts acquired in Germany was to be donated to the MKG after their deaths. In 1930 Emma Budge expanded the intended donation by willing that the villa was to be given to the city of Hamburg for charitable use. The Budge Palais was to become an outpost of the museum showcasing upper-class bourgeois life in Hamburg and the work of the city’s art collectors and patrons, with the Budges and their art collection as an example. A few months after the National Socialists came to power, Emma Budge changed her will and appointed her Jewish relatives as heirs instead. She also named four Jewish executors who were charged with administering her estate according to her wishes and for the benefit of her heirs. At the same time she did demand an appropriate "realization" according to the best business strategy. She expressly excluded the city of Hamburg from benefitting in any way.
Following Emma Budge's death the villa was sold to the city for 305,000 Reichsmark, far below its market value, against her instructions and under circumstances that are still not entirely clear today. The palais was used as the office of Hamburg's Reich governor Reichsstatthalter and head of the local NSDAP district Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann. The art collection was auctioned in 1937 by the Berlin auction house of Paul Graupe. The artworks were put on auction without limitation, meaning without a set minimum bid. This pricing can be explained by the dire situation of Emma Budge's Jewish heirs. All proceeds from the auction and the sale of the house were credited to an estate account. Assets in stocks and U.S. dollars located in Switzerland totaling about 6.8 million Reichsmark were forcibly transferred to Germany and also paid into this account. Neither the executors nor the heirs could withdraw these funds, however. Instead they had to use them to pay for ever increasing tax obligations, discriminating special taxes, the emigration tax levied upon leaving the country (the so-called Reichsfluchtsteuer), and the special tax exacted from Jews as of 1938 [Judenvermögensabgabe]: Every Jewish person whose assets exceeded 5,000 Reichsmark had to pay 20 percent of their value to the revenue service.. The minimal remaining sum that some of the heirs resident in Germany received were subject to a Sicherungsanordnung Owners of an account subject to such an order were only able to withdraw a small monthly amount in order to cover regularly occurring payments. They were unable to access the rest of their funds. and were transferred to so-called blocked accounts. According to German foreign exchange regulations, the account holder needed the authorization of the regional tax office president in order to access funds held in such an account. In case the account holder emigrated, the funds could only be transferred abroad after having been exchanged for Sperrmark, a deflated currency. In 1938 the Sperrmark was worth only six percent of the Reichsmark.
After the end of the war, restitution proceedings began for the Budge Palais. However, they did not result in the restitution of the property to its rightful owners, but in a minimal compensation payment that did not reflect the building's market value. In 2011 the community of heirs to the Budge estate filed a restitution claim for the villa that also included the Hall of Mirrors Spiegelsaal. The city of Hamburg and the heirs' representatives settled on a so-called flat compensation payment including a compensation payment for the villa, the Hall of Mirrors Spiegelsaal now housed in the MKG, and a doll house owned by the Budges that the museum had acquired in 1972. Since the circumstances under which Emma Budge's collection was auctioned in 1937 were caused by financial distress due to persecution, the Museum for Arts and Crafts Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg has proactively taken steps to reach a compensation settlement. Already in 2002 the only known heirs at the time received a compensation payment for two ornamental vessels the museum bought at the 1937 auction. This step ensured that these objects could remain in the museum collection.
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Silke Reuther, Dr. phil., born 1958, works as research assistant at the Department for Provenance Research at the Museum for Arts and Crafts in Hamburg (MKG). Here, she curated in 2014 the exhibition "Looted Art? Provenance research on the collections of the MKG". She previously worked as freelance provenance researcher, investigating among other projects the provenance of Philipp F. Reemtsma's art collection.
Silke Reuther, The Hall of Mirrors from Hamburg's Budge Palais (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 28, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-149.en.v1> [September 28, 2023].