DIA goes to court to protect ownership of Van Gogh painting; study says painting wasn't seized by Nazis

Crains Detroit Business 25 January 2006
Sherri Begin

A Van Gogh painting rightfully belongs to the Detroit Institute of Arts, according to an 18-month study to determine whether the work had been looted by Nazis during World War II.

The 1889 work, "The Diggers," belonged to Martha Nathan from 1922 until 1938, when she sold it to a group of Jewish art dealers. Her descendants approached the DIA 18 months ago, claiming that Nathan's sale of the painting was a forced sale and requesting that the painting be returned to  them as rightful heirs.

To delve into the ownership of the painting, the DIA conducted the study with the Toledo Musuem of Art, which is the target of a related claim pertaining to its "Street Scene in Tahiti" by Paul Gauguin, DIA Director Graham Beal said.

"We carried out lengthy research and established that she sold the paintings voluntarily and that she got fair-market price," he said.

The DIA on Wednesday filed an action in U.S. District Court in Detroit to confirm its ownership.

The DIA chose to take legal action after a six-hour meeting Tuesday in New York City with Nathan's heirs - two from the United Kingdom and one from Australia - failed to convince them to drop the claim, Beal said.

"We have good title to this painting, we believe," Beal said. "We are ready to protect the interests of the DIA."

According to the study, Nathan maintained a business relationship with the same Jewish art dealer following the 1938 sale. After the war, Nathan and later her brother failed to include either of the paintings in attempts to retrieve property, artwork and money wrongfully seized by the Nazis during
the war, Beal said.

Nathan, a German of Jewish descent, emigrated to Paris in 1937.

Robert Tannahill, a Detroit collector, bequeathed the Van Gogh painting in 1970 to the DIA. He bought it in 1941 from a member of the art group that bought it from Nathan for $9,364, according to a news release.

The 18-month study was led by Laurie Stein, an independent art historian, who has conducted similar research for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn. Her work has led to the resolution of claims by museums and the heirs of prior owners, the release said.
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