A Van Gogh painting looted by the Red Army appears to have been stolen from the Hermitage and replaced with a modern copy. Fears are growing that the version of “White House at Night” in the St Petersburg museum is a replica, possibly painted within the past year. The original, worth about $25 million, is now being offered on the international art market.
The Van Gogh is part of the greatest German collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures, assembled in the 1920s by industrialist Otto Krebs. Originally housed in a country house at Holzdorf on the outskirts of Weimar, the collection has always been a well-kept secret. None of the ninety-eight pictures has been exhibited for over sixty years. No colour photographs of the works exist and the paintings have been totally inaccessible to scholars. Now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the collection includes twenty-one Signacs, ten Renoirs, six Fantin-Latours, five Cézannes, four each by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, and works by Degas, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Sisley and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Until recently the Russians refused to admit that they had the collection, but a group of German museum directors has now been given a tantalising glimpse of the Krebs treasures. On 21 November last year five German museum directors, members of the German-Russian war loot restitution commission, were shown the paintings on the instructions of Dr Mikhail Pietrovski, director of The Hermitage. They included Dr Rolf Bothe, head of the museum at Weimar, as well as the directors of museums at Dresden (Dr Werner Schmidt), Berlin (Professor Wolf-Dieter Dube), Potsdam (Dr Hans Joachim Giersberg) and Bremen (Dr Siegfried Salzmann). The paintings were taken out of a store and the visitors had an hour quickly to examine them. All of them appeared to be in reasonable condition until they came to the Van Gogh.
“The paint on ‘White House at Night’ seemed very fresh, as if it was painted within the last year or two”, a Weimar Museum spokesman told The Art Newspaper. The colours were too bright for a century-old Van Gogh and the brushwork appeared dull and mechanical. This led the museum directors to ask whether the original could have been taken and replaced with a copy. When the fresh paintwork was pointed out to Hermitage curators, they were apparently “very embarrassed”.
Van Gogh had painted “White House at Night” at Auvers-sur-Oise, just six weeks before his suicide. The 24” by 29” oil was last exhibited in 1928 and it is only known from a black and white photograph.
Fears that the original Van Gogh might have been stolen grew when just three weeks after the “fresh” version had been seen in St Petersburg, it emerged that “White House at Night” was being offered on the international art market. Christie’s London Impressionist expert James Roundell was approached in early December by Mr Gerhard Novak, who said he was acting for a contact from the former Eastern bloc who wanted to sell the painting. It is believed that Novak’s contact may have come from the former Yugoslavia and was seeking DM900,000, a small fraction of the picture’s commercial value.
Novak, based in Offenbach, on the outskirts of Frankfurt, asked whether Christie’s would be interested. He did not have the painting and was presumably unaware of its provenance. Mr Roundell, who immediately realised that the Van Gogh came from the Krebs Collection, expressed interest in seeing it, “The painting was never shown to us. But if it does turn up, Christie’s will do everything in its power to ensure that it is returned to the proper owners”, he told The Art Newspaper.
The London-based Art Loss Register, which also learned that “White House at Night” was being offered, alerted the Weimar Museum. Dr Bothe then contacted the Hermitage, asking them to examine their version of the painting and compare it to a black-and-white photograph of the original work. Although when pressed, Hermitage curator Boris Asvarishch claimed that their work was “similar”, his terse comment has done little to reassure the Weimar Museum. The German members of the restitution commission are now pressing the Hermitage to allow them to make a detailed inspection of the work.
When industrialist Otto Krebs died in 1941 his pictures were stored in the cellar of his country house at Holzdorf, on the outskirts of Weimar. The area was liberated by American troops in April 1945. Three months later, before handing over to the Soviet Army, the Americans wanted to take the paintings to their zone in the West, but they were thwarted by local officials.
Holzberg then became the headquarters of General Vassily Chuikov, Soviet military administrator in Thuringia. In 1952, after his troops had eventually withdrawn from Holzdorf, the paintings were missing. All that was found in the cellar was an inventory of the lost works.
Weimar was then in the German Democratic Republic and no concerted effort was made to track down the pictures. Secret Soviet documents, which emerged only three years ago, revealed that most of the paintings had been taken to Leningrad. A Hermitage inventory dated 16 June 1957 shows that the museum then held seventy-eight Krebs paintings. The fate of the remaining twenty paintings is unknown.
The Hermitage’s acknowledgment that it holds the Krebs paintings will lead to long negotiations which could eventually result in their return to Germany in return for compensation. One solution would be for the German authorities to provide funds to the Hermitage for much needed conservation work on its pictures or for the renovation of its buildings. Because the pictures once belonged to a private German citizen, the Russian authorities would also want to satisfy themselves that Krebs had never been a Nazi collaborator and that the paintings had not been acquired from fleeing Jews.
Inquiries by The Art Newspaper have revealed that even if the Russians agree to return the Krebs Collection to Germany, it would be a legal nightmare to determine who is now the legitimate owner. Krebs, who was unmarried, died in 1941 and left his financial assets to the University of Heidelberg for medical research. The charitable trust set up for this purpose apparently no longer exists.
Weimar Museum would be an obvious place to house the collection, but Holzdorf lies just a few hundred yards beyond the city’s southern boundary and is in the county of Weimar. The county or even the federal government of Germany would therefore have a stronger legal claim than the city of Weimar. Finally, it is possible that distant relatives of Otto Krebs might emerge to make a claim.
“The legal question of ownership is very complicated. I would like to see the Krebs paintings come back to Germany and the Weimar Museum would be a suitable home”, said Dr Bothe. But he stresses that his present interest in the collection is as a member of the German-Russian restitution commission.