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Firm gives back lost art

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“This settlement with a private collection on the basis of a solution that is both amicable and equitable is exemplary”

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A FOOD firm is returning part of its vast art collection after discovering some works were looted under the Nazis.

Dr Oetker, a household name for its frozen pizza and baking products, has given a painting back to the heirs of a Jewish tobacco dealer murdered at a concentration camp.

Sorcerer and Dragon, by German artist Carl Spitzweg, is believed to be one of several works the firm possesses through its association with the Nazis.

The 19th century painting is the seventh returned after a lengthy trawl to find relatives of the rightful owners. It had been in the collection of Leo Bendel, a Jewish Berliner who fled Germany to escape persecution after the Nazis came to power in January 1933.

To finance his escape, he sold some of his paintings to a gallery in Munich, from where the Spitzweg was purchased by Caroline Oetker, a member of the food family.

Bendel moved to Vienna but was arrested and sent to Buchenwald in 1939 following the annexation of Austria by Germany. He was murdered at the camp, which is near Weimar, a year later. His widow Else, who was not Jewish, survived the war but saw attempts to secure compensation for their lost property rebuffed by a string of German governments.

Jörg Schillinger, a spokesman for Dr Oetker, said the firm had been aware of the painting’s tainted history but it took some years to identify Bendel’s heirs.

“This settlement with a private collection on the basis of a solution that is both amicable and equitable is exemplary,” Gunnar Schnabel, the lawyer representing Bendel’s heirs, said. “Unfortunately such solutions are still the exception to the rule.”

Rudolf August Oetker, who turned the family firm into a household name, volunteered for the Waffen-SS and provided pudding mixes and munitions to the armed forces during the war. His firm also used slave labour.

The 4 500-strong art collection that is kept across various Oetker sites was built up mainly by Rudolf, who died in 2007.

He used his Third Reich contacts to secure articles of gold, silver and porcelain alongside hundreds of paintings. His firm has said that a former chief executive, Richard Kaselowsky, was also a keen Nazi. It has enlisted prominent historians to produce a book on what it calls its “dark shadow”.

The works given back by Dr Oetker include a portrait by Anthony van Dyck, which was returned to the heir of Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish art dealer.

In 2014, the Oetker empire was valued at around £10 billion, with each of Rudolf’s eight children being given a one-twelfth share of the firm.