National Gallery to return painting looted by Nazis (Piece is first plundered art found in Canada)

The Ottawa Citizen 19 January 2004
Ian MacLeod

The Ottawa Citizen National Gallery director Pierre Theberge says the painting was bought from a reputable dealer. A painting by one of France's most celebrated artists that was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War has been uncovered at the National Gallery of
Canada, the Citizen has learned.

Le Salon de Madame Aron by Edouard Vuillard is the first piece of Nazi plunder discovered in Canada as part of a recent worldwide effort by galleries and museums to re-examine their acquisitions and return Nazi-looted art to its original European owners or their descendants.

Details are now being worked out to return the Vuillard, purchased by the National Gallery in 1956 from a Paris gallery, to the descendants of Parisian art dealers Alfred Lindon and his son, Jacques.

The family requested the painting's return this fall after French archivists found German war records in French government files confirming the Vuillard had been looted from a bank vault where the Jewish Lindons hid their art when the Germans occupied France.

Gallery director Pierre Theberge said yesterday the gallery is awaiting legal confirmation the claimants are the rightful heirs under French law. With that, the painting will be returned to the
family 60 years after it disappeared into the chaos of war.

"For everybody, it's a happy ending."

In December 2001, the gallery became the first art institution in Canada to post images on its website of more than 100 artworks in its collection with gaps in their wartime provenance, or history of ownership, from 1933 to 1945. It invited people to come forward if they believed any of the selected paintings and sculptures were among the countless European treasures stolen from European museums and private collections by invading Germans and, later, by the conquering Russians.

The gallery's provenance project included the 1904 Vuillard, showing a middle-class Parisian living room with a group of friends relaxing.  One is reading, another is slouching in an armchair. A conversation is in progress in the over-stuffed, over-decorated room common to the period.

Vuillard's portraits of Parisian society folk cosily sitting in drawing rooms were known and cherished throughout Europe.

He first came to fame in the late 1880s as a member of the short- lived group of artists called the Nabis, a Hebrew word for prophet. The Nabis painted a style that combined several trends -- various impressionist schools, the bright colours of Paul Gauguin, art nouveau, primitivism -- to create a style sometimes called intimisme because of the intimate nature of domestic life pictured in the paintings.

Vuillard died June 21, 1940, just days after fleeing the Nazi bombardment of Paris to join some Jewish friends in La Baule, France.

In a strange twist, initial attempts in 2000 by the gallery to determine whether the painting was, in fact, Nazi plunder, were rejected by the painting's rightful owner, Jacques Lindon, now
deceased. (His father, Alfred, died in 1948.)

The gallery's effort to contact the Lindon family stemmed from a catalogue compiled by the French government in 1947 of Nazi plunder removed from France from 1939 to 1945. The list included Le Salon de Madame Aron.

After the war, the painting resurfaced at the Gallery Jacques Dubourg in Paris. When it surfaced there is unclear. What is known is that the National Gallery purchased the painting there in 1956 for $27,500 U.S., a fairly high price for that time.

The Gallery Jacques Dubourg had an excellent reputation and the National Gallery had no reason to question the painting's ownership. As well, the issue of Nazi-looted art was still a dark secret in the art world and "apparently, nobody at that time took any notice of it on our side or on their side," said Mr. Theberge.

Too fragile to be exhibited, the painting has been kept in one of the gallery's conservation laboratories.

In 2000, the gallery wrote to Jerome Lindon, Alfred's grandson, informing him that it believed it possessed the Vuillard on the 1947 French list. To complicate matters, a second copy of the same painting is owned by a Swiss collector, but has no gaps in its wartime provenance.

Jerome Lindon contacted his aging uncle, Jacques. But Jacques Lindon recalled selling the painting -- he could not remember to whom or under what circumstances -- around 1940. He believed the painting may have mistakenly been put in the 1947 French catalogue, called the
List of Property Removed from France During the War 1939-45.

In a second round of correspondence with the family, the gallery was again told that Jacques Lindon did not believe the painting had been looted. His insistence seemed to be supported by the fact the painting had no Nazi inventory number on the back, something the Germans usually put on all confiscated art works.

"We said 'OK, fine, that's the end of that," said Mr. Theberge, and the gallery closed the book on the Lindon lead.

But late this summer, documents arrived at the gallery from the French ministry of foreign affairs.
"There were (war-era) German documents that said 'We have been to Mr. Lindon's bank and we took this and that,' " said Mr. Theberge. "And our painting was on the list.

"Once we got that, we replied to the French ministry (that) we are going to look into this and we are committed to returning the painting to the legitimate owners according to international
agreements among museums."

Soon after, on Sept. 24, a Lindon heir, whom Mr. Theberge believes was also informed by the French of the newly discovered German war records, requested the return of the painting to the family in Paris.

In October or November, Mr. Theberge said the gallery informed the heir, "there's no problem, all we need is the proof that you are indeed representing the whole family, that you are the legitimate heirs. Once that is established, there will be no problem."

The gallery is now awaiting that formal legal declaration.

Mr. Theberge said Jacques Lindon's insistence that the painting had not been stolen from the family's bank vault -- other Lindon paintings were looted, several of which the family has recovered -- might be because Jacques Lindon left France after the start of the war to live in New York.

Because of that "there might have been confusion," said Mr. Theberge.

"I'm glad that we're getting a solution to this. Speaking as a historian, it's a fantastic story and I'm very grateful to the French archivists who dug out that (German) document because it really
clarifies a section of history that is a sad one, but at least we know what happened."
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