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Art sales: Nazi loot provides rich pickings

1970
1945
The Telegraph 3 April 2007
Colin Gleadell

Examples from the largest known collection of Old Master paintings stolen by the Nazis are to go on view at Christie's in New York next week, before being sold on April 19. But a large part of the proceeds will go to paying mounting bills accumulated by lawyers and researchers on the project.

The Goudstikker collection, as it is known, was effectively stock belonging to the Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who fled Amsterdam for America in May 1940 in the face of the German invasion. One of Europe's pre-eminent dealers in Old Master paintings, he left behind some 1,400 works, half of which were snapped up by Hermann Goering for his collection.

Goudstikker, however, never made it to America. Having boarded the last boat out of Holland with his wife and baby son, he fell down a deck hatch and died the night after leaving port.
Goudstikker was buried in Liverpool, but from his pocket was retrieved a little black notebook that listed his stock of paintings in detail.

That notebook, together with the lavishly illustrated catalogues he produced, were to prove the foundation of what art detective Clemens Toussaint describes as "the most comprehensive research project ever to track down a single-owner art collection stolen by the Nazis". For the past five years, a team of art historians has been working full-time for Toussaint, tracking the missing paintings.

The largest haul so far has been more than 200 paintings from Dutch museums, some of which will be in the New York sale.

After the war, Goudstikker's widow discovered that many of his paintings had been handed over to Dutch state museums, but her attempts to recover them were rebuffed. It was only in 1997, after both she and her son had died, that her daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, resurrected the claim after a tip-off from a Dutch journalist. For the next eight years, she and her lawyers battled in the Dutch courts until February last year, when the Dutch government finally relented, agreeing to return 206 paintings. Estimates of more than £50 million were placed on the collection, but much of that will be needed to pay for the restitution costs.

Toussaint estimates the cost of research in this case at "several hundred thousand dollars a year". Then there are the lawyers' fees. Last month, one of von Saher's former lawyers was awarded £5 million by a Dutch court after a dispute over fees charged.

The evidence at the hearing suggested von Saher would also have to pay 20 per cent of the value of the collection to another Dutch lawyer, 10 per cent to her US lawyers, and another 10 per cent for art-historical research. Clearly a major sale was necessary to pay the bills.

Until now, sales of restituted works from the Goudstikker collection have been limited. In 2005, a drawing by Degas that had been returned by the Israel Museum sold at Sotheby's for £200,000. In January last year, a rediscovered terracotta relief by Donatello was sold for £2.2 million - again at Sotheby's. And, following the restitution from the Dutch government, four paintings were sold to Dutch museums for £2 million.

The sale in New York comprises just 45 lots estimated to make up to £13 million. Reflecting Goudstikker's taste for 17th-century Dutch painting is a rich array of landscapes (a river view by Salomon van Ruysdael is estimated at £1.5 million to £2.5 million) and portraits (a portrait by Frans Hals's contemporary Johannes Verspronck could make £500,000). Goudstikker also sought to develop a more international style dealing in early Renaissance Italian paintings. An example in the sale is a 4ft-high, Giotto-esque tempera-and-gold panel painting of St Lucy by the Florentine painter Jacopo del Casentino (£400,000 to £600,000).

A further 95 works will be sold later this year in London and Amsterdam, but what will happen to the other 66 restituted paintings is yet to be decided. And then there are 1,000 paintings still missing, including, it is thought, works by Rembrandt, Velázquez, Rubens and Titian.

One of the most valuable to be identified is Lucas Cranach's diptych of Adam and Eve in the Norton Simon Museum in California, estimated to be worth some £50 million. The Christie's sale therefore promises to be the first of many Goudstikker sales as the costs rise and the bills have to be paid.

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