Dia defends its right to Van Gogh -- Nazi-era collector's heirs say it's theirs

Free Press 26 January 2006
Mark Stryker

The controversy over Nazi-looted art that has plagued other leading U.S. and European museums has reached the Detroit Institute of Arts as a battle over a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece has landed in federal court.

The DIA went to court Tuesday to protect what museum leaders say is its rightful ownership of an 1889 painting by van Gogh worth at least $15 million, by one estimate.

The DIA took the action after failing to resolve a long-simmering dispute with the heirs of a Nazi-era Jewish collector, who claim that the painting, which has been in the DIA's collection since 1970, belongs to the family. DIA officials, however, say that the evidence is incontrovertible that the painting, which belonged to Martha Nathan, a German-Jewish collector in the 1920s and '30s, came to the museum in an ethical fashion.

The restitution of Nazi-looted art remains a hot-button issue in the art world as museums try to protect the integrity of their collections and legitimate ownership rights while also acting to repatriate the art to families in cases when contested works were clearly stolen or otherwise illegally acquired by the Nazis before and during World War II.

In the last decade, there have been about 30 claims made on U.S. museums for Nazi-looted art, about a dozen of which were either returned to families or resulted in some form of restitution, said Edward Able, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C.
Details of the family's claim remain sketchy. New York attorney David Rowland, who represents 15 Nathan heirs living on both sides of the Atlantic, refused to comment Wednesday.

Meanwhile, DIA officials released the results of an exhaustive report by a Nazi-era provenance specialist, an expert in tracking the ownership of art, that they say clearly shows Nathan sold the Van Gogh to a small group of dealers in 1938 and never tried to get the picture back after the war.

This occurred even though she pursued restitution for other objects that had been looted from her collection and even though the picture was widely shown and known to have once been in her collection.

DIA director Graham Beal said representatives of Nathan's heirs were made aware of the research months ago but refused to withdraw their claim. A final, six-hour meeting Tuesday in New York resulted in a stalemate.

"We think the facts add up to this conclusion," Beal said he told the family's attorneys. "Do you have any information that would cause us to think differently in any way? And the answer was 'No.' "

The DIA filed a declaratory action in the U.S. District Court in Detroit on Tuesday, asking the court to name the museum as the painting's owner. Beal said he did not know how long a ruling might take.

Nathan's heirs have also claimed that Paul Gauguin's "Street Scene in Tahiti" at the Toledo Museum of Art belongs to them. The Toledo museum has filed a separate declaratory action similar to the DIA's.

The fight over the Van Gogh, a gentle landscape called "The Diggers," began about 18 months ago when the museum received a letter contesting its ownership. The museum's files held little information, so officials hired researcher Laurie Stein, an independent art historian who has done similar work for other museums and is known for her thoroughness and ethics, to uncover the paper trail in Europe.

According to the DIA leaders, documents show:

• Nathan, who lived in Frankfurt, Germany, inherited her art in 1922 from her husband, whose will granted her the right to sell the works. In 1930, she moved the collection to Basel, Switzerland, where her family had banking interests. In 1937, she immigrated to Paris.

• On Dec. 14, 1938, Nathan sold the Van Gogh to a consortium of three dealers including George Wildenstein, for $9,364 (40,920 Swiss Francs), a price consistent with other voluntary sales at the time of similar works in Europe. (The Gauguin was purchased for $6,865.)

• From 1937 until her death in 1958, Nathan energetically sought restitution for money and assets due her, from items as inconsequential as a small, unpaid balance on her car to major works of arts seized by the Nazis. In none of her claims, did she ever mention the Van Gogh or Gauguin paintings.

• While other pieces of art from Nathan's collection were in the French government's official 1947 register of art losses by private individuals in France during the war, the Van Gogh and Gauguin are not listed.

The Van Gogh painting was bought by Detroit collector Robert H. Tannahill from Wildenstein for $34,000 in 1941. He willed it to the museum in 1970.

The DIA has a history of sensitivity to Nazi-era provenance issues. In 1950, the museum was the first in the United States to return a piece of Nazi-looted art, a painting by Claude Monet, to its rightful owner.
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