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Almost 80 years after the Nazis were defeated, ownership settled on two pieces of stolen art

A 17th-century painting once owned by Hitler will go on display in Boston, and a German commission says a Kandinsky should be returned to a Jewish family

Almost 80 years after the end of World War II, the ownership of a pair of paintings taken by the Nazis — including one once owned by Adolf Hitler — has been resolved.

On Friday, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts announced it had come to an agreement with the heirs of a pair of Jewish art dealers who had been forced to sell a 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Adriaen van Ostade to the Nazi dictator. 

The painting, Customers Conversing in a Tavern, had been part of a 2017 loan to the museum from the art collection of Susan and Matthew Weatherbie, a couple well known for their support of Dutch art. According to the terms of the agreement, the painting, which remained in the Weatherbies’ possession while its background was researched, will be given to the MFA for display. The heirs, whose identity was not disclosed, will be compensated monetarily; the amount was not made public. 

The other painting, Das Bunte Leben (A Colorful Life), by Wassily Kandinsky, once belonged to a Dutch Jewish family. On Tuesday, the Germany Advisory Commission recommended that it be returned to them.

Tracing an artwork’s history

At the time the van Ostade painting’s loan was arranged, even before it was made public, work had already begun to check it against databases of missing and stolen art, said Victoria Reed, the MFA’s senior curator of provenance. During that check, Reed found a listing for the painting on a database run by the German Lost Art Foundation. The painting had been reported as stolen art by the heirs of Paul Graupe, who ran a gallery in Paris in the 1930s. 

Reed’s research traced Customers Conversing in a Tavern’s journey through the Nazi years and beyond. She found that in the 1930s, Graupe and his business partner, Arthur Goldschmidt, both of whom were Jewish, fled Germany for Paris to escape persecution. By 1937, Graupe had ownership of the piece, but in 1939, as Germany prepared to invade France, he fled again— first to Switzerland, then Portugal and finally to the United States. Having left his art stock in France, he asked for his partner’s help in saving it. 

But Goldschmidt, too, was seeking to flee. Before making his way to Cuba in 1941, he arranged the sale of Customers to Karl Haberstock, a Berlin dealer famous for trafficking in looted Jewish-owned art. Haberstock, in turn, sold the piece to Hans Posse, Hitler’s art advisor, to be used in a museum the dictator planned to build in Austria. 

“It doesn’t appear that Graupe ever received any funds for the painting,” said Reed. “So I think no matter which way you look at it, it’s difficult to see this transaction as completely legitimate. First, from Paul Graupe’s perspective, it was his painting, but he had no control over when and how it was sold, and received no proceeds from it. Goldschmidt arguably used the funds that he may have received from the painting to survive.”

After the war, the artwork was recovered by the Allies and sent to France, where it went unclaimed until 1951, when it was auctioned off. It was sold several times before the Weatherbies, unaware of the Nazi history, purchased it in 1992. 

Resolving ownership before public viewing

Now that the question of ownership has been settled, Reed said it will make its long-awaited debut for public viewing at the MFA.

“We did not want to put this painting on display while its ownership was in dispute,” she said. “Nor do we want to be exhibiting stolen artwork. So we really wanted to and needed to get the ownership issues resolved before making the painting public and putting it on public view.”

Van Ostade, who died in 1685, was renowned for his contributions to the Dutch Golden Age of painting. His work focused on scenes from everyday life rather than historical or biblical moments.  Antien Knaap, the museum’s assistant curator of paintings, art of Europe, said Customers is a “typical example” of van Ostade’s late work. And while the artist was prolific, “in terms of what comes on the market of this quality, you can still find some, but I would say that there’s not so many of this quality, in this condition.”

“We’re thrilled to be able to show it because we actually have another great work by van Ostade also from the collection that was also donated in 2017. And we recently acquired a work by his pupil Cornelis Bega, so all three works are being shown together. It’s a real thrill if you can show an artist in greater depth.”

The Kandinsky painting

Just days after the van Ostade agreement was announced, a ruling was made concerning another piece of Nazi-stolen art when  the Germany Advisory Commission recommended that the Kandinsky piece be returned to the heirs of a Dutch Jewish family that was persecuted by the Nazis. 

The 1907 Das Bunte Leben painting once belonged to Emanuel Albert Lewenstein, who had made his fortune in sewing machines and had a sizable art collection, but was likely on loan to a Dutch museum when the Nazis invaded in 1940. 

The piece had been on display in a Munich museum since 1972 on loan from BayernLB, a Bavarian state-owned bank, according to James Palmer, founder of Mondex, a firm specializing in recovering artwork lost to the Nazis and hired to represent the Lewenstein heirs. 

The remaining family, which includes two United States-based grandchildren of Emanuel Lewenstein and his wife Hedwig, experienced “surprise and relief” when they heard of the ruling, said Palmer. 

“They expressed incredible gratitude to everybody involved. And there were so many parties involved, there’s so many experts who were called in to present their evidence on all these various points that were involved in terms of historical facts and legal issues,” Palmer said.

Awaiting final resolution

While the advisory was issued through a mediation process and isn’t necessarily legally binding, Palmer said the governor of Bavaria had previously committed to abiding by the commission’s decision. He added that a legal proceeding on the matter before the courts in New York will likely hinge on the commission’s ruling and that a decision from those courts is expected later in June. 

In an email sent to the Forward by Mondex, one of the heirs, Rob Lewenstein, said he hopes the bank “will agree with the Commission and repatriate the painting to our family, who are the rightful owners.” He added that the repatriation would “be a very good thing not only for our family, but to help many other families also repatriate stolen and misappropriated art works. It is time in our troubled world to have the obvious, correct things done and let families receive their rightful properties and have peace.”

Last year, a Dutch committee ruled that another Kandinsky painting should be returned to the family of a Jewish woman who was murdered in Auschwitz. 

While the Nazis were defeated almost 80 years ago, their theft of Jewish-owned property is still being resolved in the art world, said Reed. The task of tracing pieces of art’s ownership first became a “front burner issue” after the U.S. State Department held a conference on the matter in 1998, she said, but the belief at the time was that it would be “a discrete task with a finite end at some point.”

“I think what we’re seeing is it continues to be an important issue. These works of art are still circulating, they continue to be uncovered. And the works of art that were on the market between the end of World War II and about 1998, anything that was purchased during that time, people probably didn’t consider the Nazi era provenance when they made the purchase.”

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