Musée Rolin Helps Return a Nazi-Looted Painting to Its Rightful Owner

Observer 7 December 2023
By Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly

Questions about the painting's provenance were raised by experts after a proposed museum donation.

Adam and Eve, attributed to Cornelis van Haarlem.

An art museum in Autun, France, has helped restitute an Old Master painting to the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, a prominent Dutch Jewish art dealer whose collection was looted by the Nazis in 1940.

Entitled Adam and Eve and attributed to Dutch painter Cornelis van Haarlem, the painting in question was recently offered as a donation to Musée Rolin. But upon evaluating the work, employees found a Goudstikker label fixed to its back and discovered that it was one of the works looted from the late dealer’s collection. The donors, who were unaware of the painting’s history and have chosen to remain anonymous, worked with the museum to notify Goudstikker’s family of its discovery.

“The museum really acted in the way that you want museums to be acting; they flagged it, they contacted the family, they were doing the right thing to resolve this in a fair and correct way,” said Yaél Weitz, counsel on the case and an attorney with art law firm Kaye Spiegler. “They handled it in a way that we hope other museums will going forward,” she told Observer.

Goudstikker, a dealer of Old Master and 19th-century artists, was forced to flee Europe in 1940 and leave his gallery of approximately 1,400 works behind. He died in an accident while escaping across the English Channel on a cargo boat. As his widow and son traveled to North America, a majority of his collection was subsequently turned over to Hermann Göring in a forced sale.

Where is the rest of Goudstikker’s collection?

A small black notebook Goudstikker used to catalog his artwork was later used as evidence by the dealer’s heirs as they fought for decades to recover his collection. In 2006, after an eight-year-long campaign led by Marei von Saher, Goudstikker’s daughter-in-law, the Dutch government agreed to return more than 200 works it had received following WWII in what constituted one of the largest restitutions of Nazi-looted artwork.

More than half of these works were sold the following year in a series of auctions in New York, London and Amsterdam that netted $20.8 million in total. Meanwhile, a selection of Goudstikker paintings were exhibited in shows at New York’s Jewish Museum and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Several other works belonging to Goudstikker have since been returned by the German city of Trier and institutions like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Cummer Museum of Arts & Gardens. To celebrate the most recent return, Musée Rolin will hold a presentation ceremony on Dec. 13 to recognize the painting and the work involved in its restitution. “I am deeply appreciative of the efforts that led to the recovery of this piece of our family’s history,” said von Saher in a statement. “It is so gratifying to see justice achieved and have this painting returned to its rightful owners.”

Not all restitution attempts have been so successful. Despite a lengthy litigation battle over two Lucas Cranach the Elder paintings from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, a court ruling in 2018 found that the works rightfully belong to the museum. There are still hundreds of missing works out there, according to Weitz, who has worked on the restitution of Goudstikker artwork for years. “These restitutions are really meaningful,” she said. “They make a difference in a small way by righting some of the historical wrongs.”
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