Goring, Rembrandt and the Little Black Book

The New York Times 26 March 2006
Alan Riding

AMSTERDAM — It has become a familiar story of late. The heirs of a Jewish art collector discover that paintings seized by the Nazis during World War II were never returned to the family. They start searching and, occasionally, they are lucky. A work is traced to a museum or spotted at an auction and, after lengthy negotiations, the rightful owners recover it or receive compensation.

But what happens when virtually an entire collection is lost?

This is the challenge facing the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, Amsterdam's leading prewar collector and dealer in Dutch and Italian old masters. Last month, after eight years of dillydallying, the Dutch government finally agreed to return 202 of his paintings, which had been hanging in Dutch museums since the 1950's. Another 1,000 or so are still missing.

Enter Clemens Toussaint, a well-known 45-year-old German art detective who has been hired by Goudstikker's daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, a resident of Greenwich, Conn., to track down the rest of the collection. Finding looted art has been his business since the mid-1980's and, working on a contingency fee, he has scored some notable successes, including tracing five Malevich paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The museum returned one to the heirs of Malevich and paid compensation for the others).

But the Goudstikker case is easily his largest to date. "I was approached in 2002 to do some research into a diptych of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena," Mr. Toussaint recalled. "I delivered the research and asked Marei about the rest. 'I have no idea,' she said. 'Have you looked for them?,' I asked. 'How could we?,' she wondered. 'Well,' I said, 'it's difficult, but it's possible.' And that's how it started."

The back story, though, starts much earlier. In 1919, still only 21, Goudstikker took over his family's canal-side gallery in Amsterdam. He became immensely wealthy and married a glamorous Viennese opera singer, Desi Halban. His collection totaled some 1,400 works when he fled Amsterdam with Desi and their infant son on May 14, 1940, just days before German troops entered the city.

Almost immediately, fresh tragedy struck. Walking on the deck of the blacked-out freighter carrying him to safety, Goudstikker fell into a hold and died.

Only 42 at the time, he was buried in Britain, while Desi and the baby, Edward, finally reached the United States. By good fortune, they carried with them a little black leather notebook found on Goudstikker's body. It would become the Rosetta Stone of Mr. Toussaint's search.

In alphabetical order by painter, this travel inventory lists 1,113 of the paintings Goudstikker left behind, with their titles, size, date of purchase and, in code, the price paid for each. At the letter R, for instance, the names of Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and van Ruisdael appear, while the letter D discloses Donatello and, several times, Van Dyck.

That 4.7-by-7-inch notebook defined Mr. Toussaint's task. Next came the challenge of finding out what the paintings actually look like. "A photograph is the only proof that will persuade a museum director or a dealer or a collector," Mr. Toussaint explained while accompanying a visitor to inspect the notebook at the Amsterdam Municipal Archives.

"Our first step was to 'visualize' the book, to add the photographs. It isn't always easy. The title may just be 'Landscape.' "

Luckily, many of Goudstikker's illustrated catalogs have survived. The Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague also has some eight million photographs or print images of Dutch works of art, while catalogues raisonnés exist for the leading artists in the collection. The Internet allows easy searches of other museums and auctions. "We say we have 'identified' a work when we have a visual image," Mr. Toussaint said. "So far, we have 'identified' about 60 percent of the works in the black book. But that's not the same as finding them."

The search — the chase — is evidently what excites Mr. Toussaint. "One of my obsessions is going into museums and looking at the backs of canvases," he said, noting that many missing works still carry a "Collectie Goudstikker" label with a number. "But of course I can't do it because of alarm systems. When you ask to see the back, they ask why. 'It may be stolen.' Then they throw you out."

The quest for a missing 1690 "Still Life With Flowers" by Rachel Ruysch led his Berlin-based researcher, Nina Senger, to the Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany. "That was my big moment," she recalled. "It was being restored, and I immediately saw Goudstikker's name on the back." Dresden readily agreed to return the small oil, which is now hanging on the wall of Mr. Toussaint's Amsterdam apartment-cum-office pending a decision on its future.

"To track down an art object, you have to track the lives of people, like genealogical research," Mr. Toussaint explained. "Our joint obsession is to reconstruct the lives not only of the victims, but also of the criminals."

The wartime fate of Goudstikker's collection offered few extra clues. In July 1940, the Nazi leader Hermann Göring bought around 780 of Goudstikker's best paintings, while his dealer, a German businessman named Alois Miedl, bought the rest of the collection as well as Goudstikker's real estate properties. Most of the art was 16th and 17th century, although Goudstikker had also acquired some Impressionist and Modern works as a pension fund for his staff.

After the war, the Dutch government recovered around 400 of Goudstikker's paintings, some in Amsterdam, others returned from Germany by the victorious Allies. His widow, Desi, then began a seven-year effort to retrieve them, with Dutch officials arguing that they had been sold in good faith by Goudstikker's employees. In the end, she bought back 165 works, while the Netherlands sold off 65 more and incorporated the rest into its own collections.

Desi Goudstikker was bitter about the way she was treated, but she decided to turn the page. She remarried and her son also took her new husband's name, von Saher.

Edward in turn later married Marei and they had two daughters. Charlène and Charlotte. Yet it was only after Desi's death in February 1996 and Edward's death five months later that Marei von Saher learned of the long-forgotten Goudstikker saga from a Dutch journalist.

The timing was not accidental. Several countries recovered art looted from Jews who died in the Holocaust. But with the end of the cold war, as midcentury history came back into focus, two books — "The Lost Museum" by Hector Feliciano and "The Rape of Europa" by Lynn H. Nicholas — helped to reopen the art issue.

Mrs. Von Saher was just one of many heirs seeking belated justice. But only a handful of the depleted collections — among them, those of Alphonse Kann in France, the Viennese Rothschilds in Austria, the Herzogs in Hungary — were of a size comparable to that of Jacques Goudstikker.

While Mrs. von Saher and her Dutch and American lawyers were engaged in their protracted campaign in the Netherlands, Mr. Toussaint and his three full-time researchers settled on their strategy for tracing the rest.

"We have to look for paintings one by one," said Jan Thomas Köhler, the researcher who works mainly at the art-documentation institute in The Hague. "This may mean going through thousands of illustrations. My best moment was looking for a Dirck Hals painting. I opened a box and the very first card was for this painting — and the second card was for another painting we were looking for. It was a five-minute chase."
Discretion is an important variable. The Toussaint team keeps the results of its research secret to discourage museums from displaying, or auction houses from offering, the works it is seeking. At the same time, if the team finds a missing Goudstikker painting, it will usually publicize the discovery only if the museum or collector in question refuses to discuss the case.

"With public institutions, we make no deals because we think the public has no right to enrich itself in this way," Mr. Toussaint said. "With families, if someone bought the work at an auction in good faith, then we work out a deal. But if it's a family with a Nazi background, there's no compensation."

Sometimes, he went on, people will promise to look for a painting "when we know full well that they have it." But on occasion, the person holding the painting no longer knows how it entered his or her collection.

Such was the case with another restituted work hanging in Mr. Toussaint's apartment, "Christ Preaching" by Aert de Gelder. "The widow of the former buyer had taken it with her to an old people's home in Germany," Mr. Toussaint said. "We contacted the woman, and the family called us and said, 'Leave our mother in peace.' We explained the whole story and they gave it back and they received a small compensation."

So far, Mr. Toussaint has not sought any restitution through a lawsuit, but discussions can take time. For instance, a painting by Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt, which was bought after the war by a Dutchman in the Netherlands, has been traced to the lobby of a golf club in Stellenbosch, South Africa. "Nina had some correspondence, but then we reached a dead end," Mr. Toussaint said, "which is fairly common. But we'll persevere."

He has a considerable incentive to do so. Although the German press once gave Mr. Toussaint the nickname of "Mr. 50 Percent" — referring to his share of every art find — he said his present arrangement with Mrs. von Saher was more complicated. But while he refused to detail the agreement beyond noting that the operation costs "several hundred thousands of dollars per year," he said: "It's a very fair deal. The more we recover, the more we get paid. It all depends on our success. Marei gives us total freedom."

So far, he said, he and his team have located around 100 works, and 32 cases have been resolved. In a few, like van Ruisdael's "Bentheim Castle," the possessor — Count Bentheim himself — was allowed to keep the work in exchange for a payment. In other cases, like the Degas drawing found at the Israel Museum, the work was restituted and then sold by Mrs. von Saher to finance the ongoing search.

Following a painting's travels since 1940 is not easy. Both Göring and Miedl sold many of Goudstikker's works. And from 1943, when a German defeat looked probable, there was a boom in art sales in Germany because many people felt paintings were a secure long-term investment. Then, after the war, with Europe in ruins, only American museums and collectors had the resources to buy up European art.

"That's why we're finding most Goudstikker paintings in Germany and the United States," Mr. Toussaint said. "In Germany, we've had many restitutions. We've had them from museums in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Dresden, Stuttgart. Others, too. But no American museum has returned a Goudstikker yet. We've approached at least 10. They think we can't run 10 lawsuits at the same time, so they just sit and wait. That's my analysis."

Lawrence M. Kaye of the New York law firm Herrick, Feinstein, who represents Mrs. von Saher and handles restitution claims in the United States, expressed similar frustration. "While initially the museums indicate that they take our claims seriously and they will undertake an investigation, these situations have dragged on without any resolution," he said in a telephone interview from New York.

The claim for the Cranach the Elder diptych at the Norton Simon Museum, among the most valuable works being sought, is already five years old. The Norton Simon Art Foundation accepts that the paintings once belonged to Goudstikker, but insists they were bought in 1970 from someone who four years earlier bought them from the Dutch government. The foundation said it was now reviewing the recent Dutch decision to restitute other works, but had no further comment.

Once again, then, detailed research is the key. For instance, not only have some paintings from the collection been reattributed, but there are also occasions where copies exist and Goudstikker's version can be linked to a traced painting only through a microscopic examination of brush strokes and cracks in a photograph and on the surface of the canvas.

In contrast, the recent Dutch case was relatively simple; that is, no one questioned that the paintings came from Goudstikker. Rather, what was ultimately required was a recommendation by a government-appointed Restitution Committee that 202 paintings be returned to the family.

"The Dutch ruling was crucial," Mr. Toussaint said, "because if the Dutch had refused, no museum in the world would have given us back a painting. But I knew when I started this, it would take a long time. It won't be possible to find all the 1,000 works, although a few hundred will be possible. But, of course, this is a job we'll never finish entirely."
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