An art trove, looted by the Nazis and recovered, is going on sale

International Herald Tribune 22 February 2007
Carol Vogel

NEW YORK: A year ago, the settlement was hailed as one of the largest restitutions of art seized by the Nazis. Now, about 170 old master paintings returned to the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Dutch dealer who fled Amsterdam in 1940, are to be offered at Christie's in three sales, beginning in New York in April.

The auction house says the paintings, many on view in Dutch museums and government buildings since the 1950s, could fetch from $22 million to $35 million.

"It was a hard decision," said Marei von Saher, the widow of Edward, the only son of Desirée and Jacques Goudstikker. "I was in Holland a few days ago and saw the paintings for the first time. Some hit my heart right away. It was overwhelming."

Among the stars in the April sale are "Ferry Boat With Cattle on the River Vecht Near Nijenrode," a Salomon van Ruysdael landscape with a luminous blue sky, estimated at $3 million to $5 million. A work by the great Haarlem portrait painter Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck is expected to fetch $700,000 to $1 million.

While the heirs — von Saher of Greenwich, Connecticut, and her two daughters, Charlène and Chantal — finalize exactly how many paintings Christie's will auction, they are also working with Peter Sutton, an expert on Dutch old master paintings and the director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, to organize an international traveling exhibition.

Which museums will take the show has yet to be determined, but it will include paintings that the family is not, for now at least, selling — including works by Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan Steen and Jan van der Heyden.

"We are hoping this show will symbolize his connoisseurship as a dealer," said von Saher said of her late father-in- law. "People have forgotten him. We want the public to recognize his legacy."

Even more important, her daughter Charlène said, the traveling exhibition would tell the world "about a historical injustice put right."

The story of Jacques Goudstikker — and his heirs' eight-year legal battle to wrest some of his paintings from the Dutch government — is a complex tale of scholarship and tenacity. Goudsticker, his wife and their son fled the Netherlands on May 14, 1940, as the city was invaded by the Nazis, leaving behind his gallery business and 1,400 art works.

A second-generation art dealer, Goudstikker was unable to take any of his prized paintings with him but he did carry a small black notebook containing meticulous records of more than 1,000 works in his inventory. That notebook, which his wife retrieved after he died in a fall on the blacked-out freighter carrying them to safety, became crucial decades later when his widow and son began searching for the collection.

Many of the best works at one point were owned by Hermann Göring. After the war, nearly 300 paintings from the Goudstikker collection were returned by the Allies to the Dutch and, despite the family's protests, placed in the national collections. But in February 2006 the Dutch government agreed to return 202 paintings it had recovered after the war.

Hundreds of works are still missing. "We have researchers working round- the-clock," said Lawrence Kaye of the New York law firm Herrick, Feinstein, who represents von Saher and her daughters. "So far we recovered over 30 works, including a Degas drawing."

News of the three auctions comes just a week after a Dutch court granted von Saher permission to ship the 202 paintings from the Netherlands to the United States. Roelof van Holthe tot Echten, a lawyer, had asked the courts to block the release of the art until he was paid the fee he claims for helping to recover the art.

A judge ordered von Saher to put down a $10.4 million bank guarantee as a security deposit until the lawyer's fee is settled by the court.

Asked if Christie's was advancing her the $10.4 million, Kaye replied: "Clearly she's getting the money from somewhere. I can't discuss her financial arrangement with Christie's."

Goudstikker, who was 42 when he died, had produced shows with lavishly illustrated catalogs of art by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya, Rubens and Hieronymus Bosch.

"He was a very international dealer who sort of styled himself as the Dutch Duveen," said Nicholas Hall, an international director of Christie's old master paintings department, referring to the legendary art dealer Joseph Duveen from the early 20th century. "He had sophisticated and wide-ranging taste and dealt in everything from early Italian paintings to 17th and 18th-century French and Italian works."

He placed paintings in museums throughout Europe, Hall added, and also sold to institutions and collectors in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Samuel Kress, the department store owner who was an early donor to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

It was Hall who helped the family decide which paintings to auction at Christie's. There are many works by the same artists — six by Salomon von Ruysdael, four by van Goyen, six by David Teniers the Younger — so, to avoid saturating the market, Christie's recommended three separate sales. The first is April 19 in New York; the next, July 5 in London; and the third, in November in Amsterdam.

"There are paintings that have great historical significance that would resonate better in Europe," Hall said. A five-panel altarpiece from the 1520s, "The Last Supper" by the Dutch painter Jacob Oostsanen, will go to auction in London because early Dutch painting is more appreciated in Europe, he said.

Other works, especially less religious subjects like landscapes, still lifes and portraits, appeal more to American taste. "Wooded Landscape With a Cottage" by the 17th-century Dutch painter Philips Koninck is one of the stars in the April sale. "There have only been two works by Koninck to come to auction in the last 20 years," Hall said, noting its estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million.

Von Staher never knew her father-in- law and her husband was only not yet 3 when his father died. But she said that in 1946 her mother-in-law returned to the Netherlands and went back to the gallery. "Everything was gone," von Staher said. "But a person from the gallery came out with a big blanket under his arm and in it was a painting of two young girls by Berthe Morisot."

That painting now hangs in her Greenwich home, von Saher said, and is one of her favorite possessions.
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