Gallery's masterwork may be Nazi loot

The Australian 21 August 2006
Rick Wallace and Michael McKinnon

The National Gallery of Victoria has been accused of buying looted art and is locked in a struggle over a million-dollar portrait with the heirs of a famous Jewish collector who claim it was stolen by the Nazis.

The family of Max Emden say the portrait by Dutch master Gerard ter Borch -- which is hanging in the gallery -- is one of 100 works belonging to the German retailing baron plundered by the Nazis.

Documents obtained by The Australian under Freedom of Information laws reveal the family has demanded the return of Lady with a Fan, along with paintings held by US galleries and the German Government.

The claim comes at a time when the gallery is besieged by controversy, with conflict-of-interest allegations dogging its curator of Australian art, Geoffrey Smith, and doubts over the authenticity of Vincent Van Gogh's Head of a Man on loan to an exhibition in Britain.

Emden fled to Switzerland before the war, leaving his art behind in Germany. Continued persecution forced the family to start a new life in Chile, where Emden's three heirs now live.

Assisted by German lawyer Markus Stoetzel and lawyers in the US, grandson Juan Carlos said that he had, besides the portrait by ter Borch, identified at least eight paintings in galleries in the US and Europe stolen from his grandfather. They include two works by the 16th-century German painter Bernhard Strigel in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and two urban landscapes by the Venetian master Bernado Bellotto stolen for Hitler's private museum in Linz and now held by the German Government.

The documents obtained by The Australian reveal that Mr Emden has been writing to NGV director Gerard Vaughan since 2004, when he discovered the ter Borch on a list of suspect works published by the gallery.

The Australian revealed in December last year that one of the gallery's paintings may be Nazi loot, sparking concerns from gallery staff handling the claim, including Dr Vaughan. Ter Borch's work has sold for up to $6 million, but the gallery's portrait is thought to be worth about $1 million.

"Your first article sort of troubled him, I imagine," Mr Emden said.

"His co-operation on the ter Borch seems now to be limited to how we are linking the other lost pieces of the collection in recuperation."

The gallery -- the first in Australia to provide details of suspect works in its collection -- has amended the ownership history of the ter Borch after Mr Emden's claim.

The ownership records show the painting belonged to Max Emden before it was sold to the NGV via the German dealers Wildenstein and Company, which denies claims it dealt in art stolen by the Nazis.

A spokeswoman for the NGV said the gallery would return the ter Borch if it were found to have been looted and was co-operating with Mr Emden, but no proof had been supplied.

"The NGV has provided all the information it has about the artwork's provenance. No evidence has yet been presented in support of the claim and no legal process has been instituted," she said.
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