Painting's tragic history uncovered at the Stamford Museum

Greenwich Post 5 December 2007

Greenwich's Marei and Charlene von Saher view John Singer Sargent's 'Portrait of J.P. Wolff,' which was once owned by their relative, the famous art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.

During the Stamford Museum & Nature Center ' s ongoing review of its permanent art collection, it was discovered that in the collection is a painting left behind by famous art dealer Jacques Goudstikker when he left Holland to escape the Nazis.

The painting is John Singer Sargent ' s "Portrait of J.P. Wolff," which has been in the museum's collection since 1955.

Mr.Goudstikker's heirs have been trying for decades to locate the missing artworks with the help of the dealer's "black book," a hand-written tally of his collection.

"It was an extraordinary moment," says Rosa Portell, the museum's curator of collections. "The Sargent painting is very important to us, probably one of the most important in the collection. We knew about its artistic significance. Its association with the Holocaust gave it historical significance and tremendous poignancy."

Upon discovering the association, the museum set about locating Mr. Goudstikker's heirs to ensure that its title to the artwork was beyond reproach.

"There was never any doubt in our minds that we wanted to reach out to Goudstikker's surviving heirs to let them know we had the Sargent painting," said Executive Director Melissa Mulrooney. "The American Association of Museums mandates prompt ethical responses that assist in locating artworks appropriated during the Holocaust, with an eye to possible restitution. The Stamford Museum & Nature Center Board of Directors rightfully wanted complete transparency in this matter."

Museum staff located Mr. Goudstikker’s only surviving heirs in Greenwich. Marei von Saher, the dealer’s daughter-in-law, was pleasantly surprised by the museum’s openness. She and her daughter, Charlene, promptly made an appointment to see the painting when they found out it was their relative's.

"We already knew that it was legitimate," Ms. von Saher said. "We were just very curious to see a painting that did belong to my father-in-law that was sort of tucked away in a lovely museum and we had no idea that it was there. And what a beautiful picture it is."

A review of the Goudstikker family records showed that it was one of the few restored to Mr. Goudstikker's widow by the Dutch government after the war and sold by her in the early 1950s and, therefore, that the museum owned it outright.

“I truly, truly respect and honor the museum because they did the right thing. I wish other museums would follow suit,” said Mrs. von Saher.

During their visit, the von Sahers gave the museum a copy of the page of the dealer's "Black Book" listing the Sargent painting. Maria Nakian, co-president of the museum’s Board of Directors and chairwoman of its Collections and Exhibitions Committee, said that the meeting between the heirs and museum officials was moving and gratifying.

"Contacting Mrs. von Saher was not only the right thing to do, but it resulted in identifying for us the missing link in the painting's provenance," she said. "Its history reflects one of the most tragic events in the 20th Century. We can’t help looking at it differently now. We are honored to have the work in our collection."

Ms. von Saher said she liked the idea that the painting would remain in the collection of a museum that is so close to her home.

"I have a granddaughter who is 4," she said. "I think she is a little young to appreciate it now, but in a few years from now I can take her there and tell her, 'Your great grandfather used to own these paintings.'

"I think that’s kind of nice," she added.

The painting will be on display in the museum ' s Bendel Mansion this spring.

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