A spectacular exhibition of contemporary art opened in Berlin yesterday, amid a picket by Jewish protesters, with its billionaire owner accused of exploiting art to redeem his family's Nazi past.
Christian Friedrich Flick, who inherited part of his grandfather's fortune, originally built on wartime slave labour in explosives factories, told journalists yesterday: "I neither want to whitewash the family name, nor can art or the collecting of art compensate for my grandfather's war crimes - but please at least view these works of art separate from politics or my family's history."
Jewish protesters say the vast collection is founded on "blood money".
The quality of the art is not in question: the opening exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof, a converted railway station seen as a key to regenerating a still rundown corner of the city, is only a fraction of the collection which will fill the gallery for the next seven years.
The bitter criticism of the Flick collection has spread to the city leaders and the German government - chancellor Gerhard Schröder formally opened the exhibition last night - for accepting Flick's offer to create the gallery, paying the costs of the building and lending his collection.
Yesterday Herr Flick, who mainly lives in Switzerland, said wryly that the exhibition fitted Berlin like a hand in a glove - "or like a fist in the eye".
The display has works by the biggest hitters in contemporary art, such as neon works by Bruce Naumann, an early conceptual piece by Marcel Duchamp, works by Alberto Giacometti and Gerhard Richter, and crowd pullers such as Jeff Koons's giant gold ceramic portrait of Michael Jackson.
The opening yesterday was picketed by protesters handing out leaflets demanding free entry for former slave workers. Two lorries have been hired to drive through the city with the same message.
The artist who designed the leaflets and billboards, Frieder Schnock, said: "If you come to a poor city like Berlin everyone welcomes you if you show the money. But if you inherit money, you inherit responsibility."
Michael Fuerst, a member of Germany's Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote on the news website Netzeitung: "For a little bit of glamour in the impoverished parlour of the republic, Gerhard Schröder is opening the exhibit along with the collector ... under the motto: What do I care about all this blather from yesterday?"
But, opening the exhibition last night, Mr Schröder defended Flick. "He has accepted the responsibility that goes with bearing the name Flick," he said.
He welcomed the public debate over the collection. "It prevents what some critics fear most - that history may get forgotten. Nothing is getting suppressed or buried in history books - the attention that art brings with it is a guarantee that history does not get forgotten."
In the second world war Herr Flick's grandfather, Friedrich Flick, used 1,000 women slave labourers to carry out the most dangerous work in his vast explosives factory: hundreds died. Taking over confiscated Jewish firms also swelled his fortune. After the war he was sentenced at the Nuremberg trials to seven years in prison, but was released three years early.
He refused to compensate any of his surviving workers, or the relatives of the dead. He rebuilt his business empire, based in West Germany, and died in 1972 as one of the world's wealthiest men.
When the young Herr Flick - then a playboy instantly recognisable from the pages of Europe's gossip and society magazines - inherited he sold all his shares in the company.
His wealth is now based on his own investments. In the 1970s he sold his old masters collection and began buying contemporary art, and is now seen as having one of the most important private collections in the world.
He has refused, unlike his brother and sister, to pay into a special fund established by the government for Nazi-era forced labour survivors and their families. Instead he has insisted that the foundation he established in Potsdam, against racism and xenophobia, is evidence of his liberal credentials.
Klaus Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Prussian Culture Foundation, which has backed the gallery, said yesterday that active confrontation of the Flick family's past was always a condition for mounting the exhibition.
His foundation has commissioned a detailed study of the role in the Nazi era of both the Flick family and the Flick companies. As part of the exhibition the museum will host two major symposiums on Flick and how Germany has confronted its past.
"I have always tried to separate my family history from the collection, from the art and the artists - the collection should not be seen with ideological glasses," Herr Flick said yesterday. "I want to make it clear that I have never said I want to excuse the dark side of my family."
The exhibition is set to run for seven years, with displays changing each year. The controversy looks set to run as long.