Restitution battles rage from Seattle to Paris to Budapest to New Zealand

Matisse Odalisque restored to the Rosenberg family


An Odalisque by Matisse was seized from Paul Rosenberg’s house near Libourne outside Bordeaux during the Nazi occupation and only traced to the collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) some two years ago. Prentice Bloedel, a local timber baron, had bought the Odalisque from Knoedler & Co. in Paris in 1954, and donated the work to the museum in the 1990s. SAM surrendered the painting to the heirs of Rosenberg this summer after two years of pressure and litigation, when researchers showed beyond any doubt that it had been the property of the Parisian collector.

The family sold the picture almost at once to gambling impresario, Steven Wynn, which led to criticism that the picture, and other works being sought by the heirs of Holocaust victims, would have been better left in museums to be seen by the public. In a statement on his casino’s website, Steve Wynn countered that his purpose in displaying his recently formed collection at his new Hotel Bellagio in Las Vegas was to show works “that have long been hidden from public view in private collections.”

Besides losing its battle to hold the painting, SAM also lost its lawsuit to get compensation from Knoedler for the estimated $2 million painting that the dealer represented as coming from the personal collection of Henri Matisse, even though it had been owned by the Rosenbergs.

US District Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that SAM had sought to sue on behalf of the Bloedel family, which it did not have the right to do, although the judge recognised “evidence of fraud” in Knoedler & Co.’s failure to disclose that the painting had belonged to a Jewish collector whose property had been confiscated. SAM defended its delay in returning the picture to Rosenberg’s heirs as part of its effort to be compensated by Knoedler & Co. for the loss of a valuable work in its collection.

o Knoedler & Co. may be off the hook as a result of that ruling, but another New York dealer faces serious charges in France for trying to sell a painting looted from another important French collection, seized from its Jewish owners during World War II. Adam Williams has been indicted by a French Appeals Court for offering stolen property—Frans Hals’s “Portrait of Pastor Adrianus Tegularius”—at the Paris Biennale in 1990 after buying it at Christie’s London the year before for £315,000. Working for Newhouse Galleries of New York, Mr Williams had labelled the picture as coming from the collection of Adolph Schloss, which the Nazis and their French collaborators had seized from a hiding place in southwestern France in 1943. At the time, 330 pictures were divided up, mostly between the Louvre and Hermann Goering, with the Louvre getting first pick. Dozens of those mostly seventeenth-century Dutch paintings remain unrecovered. Mr Williams pleads ignorance to the charges of receiving stolen goods, which have been thrown out several times and just recently reinstated. He faces a maximum prison term of five years and a $416,700 (£684,00) fine. “This is the most incredibly unfair thing I’ve ever heard of,” said the dealer, who attributes his prosecution to France’s guilt over its officials’ own role in the original pillaging. France has been criticised for its inactivity until recently in tracking down any of the missing Schloss works. It was only last year that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a catalogue of unrecovered Schloss paintings.

o Hungary is now also under pressure for similar inactivity. A seventy-five-year old American is suing the Hungarian government in Budapest to recover paintings looted by the Nazis from Jews that are now in the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery in the Hungarian capital. Martha Nierenberg, granddaughter of Baron Maurice Herzog, an art collector, alleges that Herzog’s property was seized by Adolph Eichmann of the Nazi SS and later given by Allied forces to State museums in Hungary, instead of to their rightful owners. The works include paintings by El Greco, Van Dyck and Cranach. Efforts to reach a settlement with Hungarian authorities have failed, a family spokesman said.

News of the claim came at the same time as an announcement that the Presidential Commission for Holocaust assets in Washington would examine any part played by US Army personnel in looting gold and other property from Hungary at the end of the war.

o Three Italian Impressionist oils came home in September. Two years previously, five Italian paintings travelled to the Pananti Gallery in Florence, having been lent by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. While they were on show, members of a Florentine Jewish family started civil proceedings against the New Zealand gallery, claiming that the works of art had been stolen from the home of their grandfather, Augusto Vitta, when he fled Italy during the war. The paintings had been purchased in good faith by the Dunedin Gallery in 1994. The vendor was a local resident who had inherited the works from her brother, Private Arthur Fraser, who had apparently bought them in Italy where he served during World War II. In April of this year, while the paintings were in the custody of the Italian police, a settlement was proposed by the judge at the hearing. Three of the works were to return to New Zealand, for the enjoyment of the citizens of Dunedin, while two were to remain with the Vitta family, providing some reparation for their loss during World War II. The criminal charges were dropped in June and the settlement confirmed in July, ensuring a quick, civilised and cheap resolution to the case.