The Tate is facing a Nazi spoliation claim for a seascape by Constable. The claimants are the descendants of the Budapest-based collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany. Their case has been examined by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which is now finalising its report.
Beaching a Boat, Brighton, 1824, was donated to the Tate in 1986 by a Mrs P.M. Rainsford, who acquired it in 1962. Before that, the work belonged to the Paris-based collector Paul Chéramy, who sold it in 1908. There was a gap in ownership from 1908 until 1962 (in 1962, the painting was owned by a Mr Meyer, who sold it to the London-based dealer Leger; it then went to the Broadway Art Gallery in Worcestershire, which sold it to Rainsford).
The seascape was highly regarded in the early 20th century and was reproduced by the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe in his pioneering book on Modern art, published in 1904. He described the work as early evidence of Impressionism. Although this early German interest should perhaps have alerted the Tate’s spoliation researchers, nothing was found to suggest that the painting might have been looted.
Hatvany’s heirs recently identified what they claim is the family’s painting in the Tate’s collection, where it has a slightly different title. Their claim is being handled by the New York-based Commission for Art Recovery.
Hatvany was the most important Hungarian collector of the inter-war years, with pictures ranging from Old Masters to Post-Impressionist works (he also owned Courbet’s L’origine du Monde, 1866). The claimants say that he bought the seascape in the Chéramy sale. In 1942, when Budapest was bombed by Allied forces, Hatvany put the painting in the vaults of the Hungarian General Credit Bank; since he was of Jewish extraction, he did this using the name of János Horváth, a Gentile. In 1945, when the Red Army occupied Budapest, the bank vault and its paintings were looted, probably by individual Soviet soldiers.
Hatvany fled to Paris to escape the Communists in 1947, and died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1958. The descendants of his four children are the current heirs. They have secured the return of Courbet’s Femme nue Couchée, 1862, which was stolen from the bank vault and resurfaced in 2000 in the possession of a Slovakian. It was handed over in 2005 after a reward was paid.
The UK’s spoliation panel has conducted a detailed examination of the Hatvany family’s claim, and its recommendation is expected to be published soon. Although the value of Constable’s work has not been disclosed, it is likely to be the second most valuable of the 13 cases being dealt with.
In the meantime, none of the parties involved will comment. The painting is in storage at the Tate.