by Nancy Moses
On May 15, the International New York Times reported that a painting entitled “Femme Assise,” or “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in an Armchair” was returned to its rightful owner.
Seventy years after its disappearance, and after a lengthy legal battle, the painting was finally reunited with Elaine Rosenberg, descendent of Paul Rosenberg, a world famous art dealer and a Jew.
“Femme Assise” is the second painting returned from the cache found in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, himself the son of an art dealer, who also happened to be a Nazi. Gurlitt secreted away more than 1,450 artworks in his Munich apartment and Salzburg home. In his will, Gurlitt gifted all 1,450 to the Kuntzmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, but the bequest now faces legal challenges.
The return of “Femme Assise” to the Rosenberg family was hard-fought and laudable. Sadly, it represents only the tiniest drop in a very big bucket.
According to the experts, the Nazis looted 600,000 artworks from Jewish families. Approximately 200,000 of these remain at large. Only about 1,500 have ever made their way back to Jewish families.
Only 1,500 returned out of 200,000? Where are the rest?
Much of what is referred to as “Holocaust art” can be found in art museums throughout the world, including United States. According to the Association of Art Museum Directors, American art museums own approximately 25,000 that “require further study into their ownership history during the Nazi era.” Between 1998 and July 2006, only 22 works were returned to the heirs of Holocaust victims[i] or, because of settlements reached with the heirs, remain in the museum.
I am haunted by these looted treasures.
It’s impossible to comprehend six million Holocaust victims, but I can imagine a single family living in a flat in Munich or Paris or Vienna, cowering by the windows as their city is invaded, frantically packing up a couple of suitcases, mournfully abandoning their paintings as they close the door on their lives, some getting safely away, others trapped and murdered by the Nazis.
I imagine someone from the same family, having survived the war, learning decades later that the beloved paintings that once hung over the fireplace in the family flat are now hanging on the walls of an art museum in Memphis or Milwaukee or Melbourne.
Paul Rosenberg was an art dealer. He had the foresight to document ownership of this painting in an inventory and in a 1946 declaration to the French government that listed works still missing. This documentation allowed Rosenberg’s descendants to win their case and get their Matisse back.
Rosenberg was the exception. Few Jewish families had the foresight to bring along the ownership records on their artwork when they were forced to abandon everything. Paperwork went missing on the way to death camps or safety abroad.
Today, some 70 years after the War, few descendants have the documentation, dollars and tenacity to battle in court for their family’s possessions. Jewish families and their attorneys face nearly insurmountable odds. Government and private museums are very eager to acquire artworks but very reluctant to give them back.
So, when I read the good news about the return of this painting by Matisse, I cannot help but remember how the destruction of an entire people continues, one court case at a time.
[i] Association of Art Museum Directors, “Art Museums and the Identification and Restitution of Works Stolen By the Nazis,” (May 2007)