Trader of the lost art

The Times 24 September 2006
John Follain

His name causes museum and gallery curators across the world to shudder, for his calling card is blank space where paintings once hung. But he is no thief – quite the opposite. More than 60 years after the war, thousands of works of art plundered from Jewish collectors by the Nazis are still installed in European institutions. Clemens Toussaint, a 45-year-old German multimillionaire, has made it his business to track them down and return them to their rightful owners.

Toussaint is a pioneer in the field – and visibly successful. His home is a luxurious seafront apartment in Monte Carlo, from which he commutes by helicopter. In two decades of hunting he has made millions from the fees he charges for his work – and countless enemies in the art world. Despite the fact that the museums and private collectors he targets are in possession of stolen goods, critics have branded him a merciless plunderer, motivated purely by money. One newspaper called him “the 50-per-cent man” because he reportedly demands half the value of a recovered work as his fee.

Toussaint has lost count of the dozens of works he has recovered for clients across the globe. Early in his career, he helped an elderly collector in East Germany to spirit works by Kandinsky and Klee to the West without the knowledge of the communist rulers. The money from the sales enabled the collector’s grandchildren to flee to the West. In 2001, Toussaint recovered a Klee watercolour, Deserted Square of an Exotic Town (whose value may be as much as £200,000), from the private Kiyomizu Sannenzka Museum in Tokyo. It was the first time a Japanese collector had returned a painting looted by the Nazis.
His greatest success was tracking six paintings by Kazimir Malevich, who died penniless in 1935 after falling foul of the Soviet authorities, to New York’s Museum of Modern Art on behalf of 31 descendants. In 1999 the museum paid an undisclosed sum in compensation, said to be $5m, and handed over to Malevich’s heirs a work called Suprematist Composition. They sold it at auction for $17m – a handsome percentage of which went to Toussaint.

He has now embarked on his most ambitious mission yet: a quest for an entire collection, a thousand or so paintings and drawings that were looted by Hermann Goering, the Third Reich’s second-in-command, from Jacques Goudstikker, a fabulously wealthy Dutch art dealer of Jewish origin who fled Amsterdam on the eve of the Nazi occupation. The collector’s heir has already won a landmark pledge from the Dutch government to return 202 paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Anthony Van Dyck and Salomon van Ruysdael hanging in various museums and galleries. The Goudstikker story features masked balls in a castle, the love of a beautiful Viennese opera soprano, an accidental death at sea, and a little black book listing alphabetically the dazzling treasures of an ill-fated collection: D for Donatello, G for Goya, R for Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens, V for Van Gogh.

In May 1940, as the Netherlands awaited a much-rumoured Nazi invasion, the 42-year-old Jacques Goudstikker braced himself for the collapse of the flamboyant, carefree life he and his family had built up over two generations. The biggest art dealer in Amsterdam, he owned palatial premises on the Herengracht canal – two canals from the more modest home of Anne Frank – which stocked a thousand works, many of them masterpieces. The fashion then was for 19th-century landscapes and historical subjects, but Goudstikker persuaded museums to buy and show 16th-century Italian art and 17th-century Dutch art. A skilled merchant, he also published lavish catalogues with full-page photographs of a quality unrivalled by his competitors.

The rotund Goudstikker had a taste for the high life. Apart from the canal mansion on the Herengracht, he owned a villa on the seafront outside Amsterdam, and the sprawling medieval Nijenrode Castle 15 miles away on the River Vecht, to which he travelled either in a luxury car or in his private launch. An amateur chef, he loved throwing parties at the castle, with guests dressed up as 17th-century Viennese courtiers, both men and women sporting ornate wigs decorated with flowers. He created real-life tableaux with local girls, fish and game to reproduce works by Vermeer and other artists, which he then photographed.

Goudstikker invited Austrian opera singers to his Vienna-on-the-Vecht party to entertain his guests. One of the singers, the glamorous Desi Halban, was to become his wife. Fourteen years younger than him, she bore him a baby boy, Edward, born days before the Nazis invaded and their world collapsed in May 1940.

Halban obtained visas and tickets for an ocean crossing to America, while Goudstikker carried out an inventory of his 1,400-work collection, arranging for 20 paintings to be shipped to America ahead of them. “Very soon, the day will come when we won’t see all this any more,” he told Halban. But he kept delaying their departure.

On May 14, 1940, the couple were talking to acquaintances in an Amsterdam street when Halban looked up to see paratroopers dropping out of the sky. They decided to leave that day. As they neared the port, they were stopped by a Dutch soldier. But he’d recently seen Desi in concert and only asked, “Are you Miss Halban?” before waving them through. They boarded the last ship out, abandoning their limousine on the quay, the keys in the ignition.

Two nights later, as the ship sailed through the Channel, virtually all its lights off because of fears of air attack, Goudstikker told Halban he needed some fresh air. When he failed to reappear, Halban left the cabin clutching the baby and shouting for people to help her find him. The search party found Goudstikker’s body the next morning. It was lying in a hold; he had fallen through a hatch in the darkness and broken his neck. Halban buried her husband in Liverpool and continued her journey to America.

A few weeks after Goudstikker’s death, Reichsmarschall Goering climbed the steps of the gallery on the Herengracht canal. Threatening confiscation, he “bought” an estimated 779 paintings in a sham transaction typical of the forced sales engineered by the Nazis. In the months that followed, two of the late Goudstikker’s employees handed the gallery over to Alois Miedl, Goering’s henchman, receiving a big reward of 180,000 guilders each. Miedl, under the orders of Goering, also gained ownership of the collector’s remaining art works, as well as his homes and his trade name. If anyone in Amsterdam mourned Goudstikker’s passing, they kept very quiet about it. Nobody stopped Miedl from continuing to trade under Goudstikker’s name. Between 1940 and 1944, Miedl made a fortune trading 4,000 works, many of them sold to Nazis in Germany.

In 1945 an American intelligence unit found many of Goering’s purchases hidden in salt mines near Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideout. Halban tried to recover the paintings but, after lengthy negotiations with the Dutch government, which treated her as a collaborator because the gallery had continued to operate during the war, she managed to buy back only 165 works in 1952.

Halban remarried and settled back in the Netherlands. “Desi was a grande dame, always beautiful,” said Marei von Saher, Edward’s wife. “She came to visit us in America three or four times a year, but she never really discussed the war. She did tell me that Jacques was the love of her life; he was the reason she returned to the Netherlands. She felt closer to him there.”

The former Mrs Goudstikker died of heart failure in 1996, and her son died of cancer five months later. It wasn’t until 1997, when a Dutch journalist approached her, that von Saher learnt the size of the missing collection.

The bay windows closed to keep out the noise of helicopters shuttling Monte Carlo residents to Nice airport, Toussaint sits in a leather armchair. His apartment is elegant and airy, with marble floors and a few modern art works including a Cy Twombly drawing and a Lucio Fontana slashed canvas. He laughs when asked about his collection. “You are a collector when you have so much stuff you can’t hang it all. I wouldn’t say that about the half-dozen things I’ve got.”

Dressed in an open-necked shirt with mother-of-pearl cufflinks, white chinos and suede shoes, he looks tired, with dark smudges under his eyes, probably owing to his having just flown in from Israel, where he took part in a conference on looted art. Toussaint, who speaks fluent English, French and German, hates the label “art detective”. It doesn’t do justice to his task, which he describes as “finding a needle in a haystack, persuading someone 60 years on that he or she should give something valuable back, and enforcing moral principles. It’s more historical researcher than police officer”.

The stakes in his profession are increasingly high, as demonstrated by two recent retributions which – clearly to his regret – were not his doing. In June, news broke of a record $135m paid by the cosmetics magnate Ronald S Lauder for a Gustav Klimt; the Austrian government had returned it to the original owner because it had been seized by the Third Reich. That same month, another painting, an Egon Schiele, which had been seized by the Nazis, fetched nearly $22m at an auction in London.

Toussaint stumbled on his career by chance. Born in Cologne in Germany in 1961, Toussaint learnt early about art: both his father, a political journalist, and his mother, a fashion designer, were collectors. He studied art history in Berlin, but dropped out to become a scriptwriter. His first script idea, in the mid-1980s, was to illustrate Germany’s slide into dictatorship by focusing on the story of one painting’s owners. His research took him to the archives of one German museum, where he found a boxful of appeals from Jewish families asking about works of art that used to belong to them, had been looted by the Nazis and were now hanging in its galleries. They had all fallen on deaf ears.

Toussaint was stunned, “Really shocked. Here were stories of people fleeing for their lives, hiding their art and then having it stolen. I confronted the museum directors and they told me the works were in great condition, why stir things up? I was furious.”

Toussaint learnt that a victorious America had returned a mere fraction of the looted art it had seized from the Nazis, and that had gone to state authorities in Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands. No effort had been made to find the rightful owners. “Democratic post-war states had enriched themselves with the fruits of war crime. Reality was more exciting than fiction, and I dropped the screenplay,” he says. Gradually, Jewish families asked Toussaint to find out more about looted art. “The Nazis plundered millions of art works and murdered millions of people. You can’t repair all that, but you can work towards some symbolic restitutions.”

At first he only had a laptop and a phone. He drew up a list of 10 missing paintings, and found three of them. His method was painstaking, often dull research. The first task was to correctly identify a painting. When a family had only vague recollections of it, he went through photo album after photo album to spot the work “hanging behind Grandmother on the dining-room wall”. Armed with such clues, he pored through catalogues of auction houses, galleries and museums, as well as art databases that stock thousands of photographs of paintings.

To reconstruct the painting’s story, he was usually forced to focus on people. “A painting doesn’t leave many traces – perhaps some insurance stuff, or a restoration report. To find a painting you have to reconstruct the lives of the people who may have come into contact with it. Each individual leaves traces. If you are not in the mafia or in intelligence, I can find you.”

Discretion is often required. “You can’t barge into a museum archive saying you are looking for files on the stolen painting upstairs. You simply say you’re looking for information on a particular painter.” At an art fair in New York, he asked a dealer for information about a painting. Assuming he was a potential buyer, she let him look at the back of the work, pointing out its pristine condition. Toussaint immediately spotted a telltale label. When he told her what the label meant, the woman furiously accused him of entering under false pretences. “That’s neither here nor there,” Toussaint retorted. “The fact is, you have a stolen painting.”

His job requires visual memory, unceasing travel – which leaves him little time to see his sons, 11-year-old twins (he and his wife are separated) – and imagination, as he needs to dream up theories which he can then test. Readiness to take on a fake identity also helps; he has twice impersonated a wealthy collector to obtain information on a painting.

There may of course be envy involved, but his tactics have caused resentment in the art world, with some branding him a bully. “Toussaint says he’s giving the little guys a chance,” Mathias Rastorfer, director of the Galerie Gmurzynska dealership in Cologne, Germany, has said of him. “His restitution tactics are almost like blackmail because museums are so afraid of the bad publicity, they feel they have no choice.”

Of all the unpleasant things said about him, which hurts Toussaint the most? “That I’m doing this for money. Everyone does his job for money,” he replies. “When I finished Malevich, I was criticised as a lucky adventurer, but that was the result of 10 years’ hard work.” Then there is his nickname, the 50-per-cent man. “It’s never 50, because you have to deduct expenses and work-time. Sometimes it’s 5% – it depends whether the work can be recovered quickly. Each deal is different.

I never made 50%.” When pressed, he becomes evasive and a little flustered before admitting that, yes, his fee can “start at 50%”. Surely that is outrageously greedy, especially given the value of many old masters? Does he think half the $135m paid for the Klimt would be a fair fee? Toussaint doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Yes. There was a lawyer involved who risked his existence – he worked on it for 10 years; $60m would be fair because he took the risk.”

“It’s easy to say afterwards, ‘You made too much money.’ But when you start out you don’t know how long it will take, whether you’ll find the work or what its value will be in several years’ time. You don’t even know whether the courts will find in your favour. If it was such an easy business, everyone would be doing it. I’ve had periods when no one wanted to put money into this, yet I have to manage the whole case and hire international lawyers.”

Of course, whatever Toussaint charges is the going price – there’s a market for recovering art looted by the Nazis, and he is just applying the laws of supply and demand. Later, he concedes that probably the most valuable painting from the Goudstikker collection – a 16th-century lifesize diptych of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, hanging at the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, California – “could be as valuable as the Klimt”. Neither he nor the collector’s heir will disclose his fee, but Toussaint has said that the quest is costing “several hundred thousand dollars a year”.

He makes short shrift of the criticism that he plunders museums and galleries, robbing the public of masterpieces: “No one should profit from the fruits of war crime. You know what I tell someone who has just recovered a painting?

I tell them to behave like the owner they have become, to enjoy it. It’s important for them to have it in their own home, it’s part of their family history and gives them a glimpse of what they once had. And the works go back on show sooner or later – the Klimt never went into a bank vault, it’s already on show in New York.” Toussaint first came across the Goudstikker case four years ago, when he was contacted by Marei von Saher, who lives in Connecticut. She asked him to locate the Adam and Eve diptych.

Toussaint got the information (the museum has so far refused to return it), then asked her about the rest of the collection. “I have no idea,” she said. “Have you ever tried to find them?” Toussaint asked. “How could we?” she replied.

The first clue in the search for the missing paintings lies in a cardboard box that is kept inside a climate-controlled safe in the Amsterdam Municipal Archives on the edge of the River Amstel. Goudstikker and Halban used to pass down this stretch on the way to their seafront villa. The senior archivist who brings the box to a special consultation room carries it gingerly, as if it contained a cocktail of explosive chemicals. As another archivist stands guard by the door, the box is opened to reveal the “black book” – the alphabetical index Goudstikker’s widow found among his belongings after his death.

The pages are still crisp and only slightly stained. The entries are typed neatly, detailing title and artist (Lorrain, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Veronese et al), the painting’s size, exhibition and purchase records. “It’s our most precious piece of evidence,” explains Amelia Keuning, an Amsterdam lawyer working with Toussaint. “Goudstikker ensured that it was right up to date; he himself wrote a big red V [for Verkocht – sold] if a work was sold before his departure.”

For the team – Toussaint himself and an associate each in Berlin, Amsterdam, Cologne and New York – the next step was to visualise the index’s contents by finding photographs of the missing paintings.

Researchers including Jan Thomas Köhler, a German art historian, spent 10 hours a day, for three years, at the Netherlands Institute for Art History in the Hague, which has 8m photographs of Dutch paintings, and to whom Goudstikker supplied photographs of the works he traded. “You can’t imagine how many boxes of photographs labelled ‘landscape with river and bridge’ I went through,” says Köhler.
So far, the team has found photographs of two-thirds of the Goudstikker collection. To locate the paintings, they do not hesitate to check the backs of canvases – alarm systems permitting. Many of them still bear the “Collectie Goudstikker” label. The collection has been dispersed across the globe. One painting was found in an old people’s home in Germany, another in the lobby of a golf club in South Africa, and yet another in a museum in Puerto Rico.

Once the team has tracked down a painting, the lawyers take over. Larry Kaye, of the New York law practice Herrick, Feinstein, who represents von Saher, says they were in luck when a drawing by Degas called Four Dancers was tracked down to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “The museum had no idea the drawing had a wartime history. It had been donated by a sponsor. We were able to argue a persuasive case, and within a year they agreed to return it,” Kaye says. Von Saher sold the drawing to pay for the continuing search.

For the most part, the museums Kaye contacts in America and elsewhere simply dig in their heels and tell him they will study the matter. In February, however, after eight years of vacillating, the Dutch government agreed to return 200 of the collection’s paintings, which had been hanging in 17 different state-owned museums, galleries and embassies since the 1950s.

One of those hit by the ruling is Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which will have to give up 15 works. Peter Sigmund, its director of collections, put a brave face on the loss. “Times have changed,” he said. “There is a new generation which looks at things in a different light. It’s as if we have had [the paintings] here as a temporary loan.” They may, however, stay in the public eye. Von Saher is thinking of staging an exhibition of the recovered works, or even of creating a museum to house them permanently. “It would be a way of honouring my father-in-law’s legacy,” she says.

I caught up again with Toussaint at a bar in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Since we first met in Monte Carlo five weeks earlier, he had travelled to Italy, America and Britain, all for business, and taken a short holiday in France with his sons. His KLM flight from London had been cancelled, forcing him to sit and wait for a couple of hours, but he was looking delighted because of the big brown package marked “FRAGILE” resting on his luggage trolley. “There’s a painting in there, it was Goudstikker’s and I just got it back from a London art dealer,” he announced.

Resurrection, by the 17th-century Flemish artist Thomas de Keyser, is the right-hand side of an altarpiece diptych – the other half is still missing. It took Toussaint two years to recover this painting after he found out it was on show at a fair in Maastricht. “The dealer was shocked when we approached him, but we worked out a fair settlement,” Toussaint says. True to form, he wouldn’t reveal anything about the figure reached with the dealer, “who is not far from Christie’s”. But he did say the dealer had previously put the painting on sale for some £60,000.

It’s one painting in a thousand. Has he got himself a job for life tracking down the remainder of the collection? “I may never get to the end of the search. But war means destroying art. Twenty years ago nobody cared about a painting’s history – Sotheby’s would offer an old master for auction and just mention that it was ‘consigned by a European gentleman’. But today, when an art work comes on the market, establishing where it comes from is as important as proving it is authentic. What we do has changed the rules of the game."
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