Dresden recovers its Jan Brueghels lost in 1945

La Tribune de l'Art 1 January 2008

Restitution of stolen goods — Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister

JPG - 48.5 kb
1. Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Landscape with Windmills, 1611
Oil on panel - 26.5 x 37.5 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
Photo: Schwarz-weiß-Photographie der
Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Acquired in 1708 for the princes’ collections in Saxony (under Augustus II the Strong), inventory number A701 in the inaugural catalogue for the gallery in 1722 (1902 catalogue: n° 886) [1], the Landscape with Windmills by Jan Brueghel the Elder (ill. 1), had remained on display at the Dresden museum until 1945 and was then considered lost.

In July 2001, it reappeared in Antwerp, the city where it had been painted, and was seized by the police from a Ukrainian agent who was trying to sell it in the United States. The Kunstsammlungen Staatlichen in Dresden immediately filed its claim as legitimate owner in order to recover the work with legal advice from its lawyers and staunch support from the Belgian government. Finally, last 4 December, after appeal, the Appellate Court of Antwerp confirmed ownership and refused to grant the plaintiff any financial compensation. This judgement applies without delay and nothing stands in the way of the painting’s return to Germany before being handed over to the general director of the art collections of the State of Saxony, Dr. Martin Roth.

JPG - 61.1 kb
2. Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678)
In Front of a Village Tavern, 1641
Oil on panel - Diameter: 18 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
A few days earlier, last 29 November, the Bavarian police had seized a small round panel signed by Jan Brueghel the Younger [2] on the premises of the Hampel auction house in Munich, representing stableboys taking care of the horses and carriages for customers in front of a village tavern [3] (ill. 2). It was planned for auction on 8 December 2007 (lot 1806, estimated between 60,000 and 80,000 €). In the catalogue, the entry mentioned the provenance as being: “Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Gemäldegalerie, 1722 Inventory, A465, missing during World War II”; the bibliography also listed works from the museum in 1902 (n°906) and 1963.

The museum had been tracing the painting since the 1970s when it belonged to a Belgian collection. In 1979, its owner had it appraised by the artist’s specialist but in an anonymous manner. It was then offered in 1986 to Sotheby’s Düsseldorf who refused to sell it, and after several mysterious transactions, it fell in the hands of the Munich dealer Konrad O. Bernheimer who sold it to a local collector. For the administrative director of the Dresden collections, Dirk Burghard, ownership of the painting had been illegal for a long time since the whole art market and anyone having read the monographic study was familiar with its provenance. Bernheimer, who quickly offered to indemnify his client, practically a confession of guilt, could be accused of receiving and selling stolen goods (he should, however, be covered by German law which does not require art dealers to keep sales invoices more than ten years, the time limit for conviction). Almost 500 paintings disappeared from the walls of the Dresden museum during World War II, and although many were destroyed during the bombings, some still reappear from time to time.

We take this opportunity to point out how difficult it is for private individuals or art professionals to consult internet websites for stolen art goods. Currently, sites for national police and Interpol do not disclose their information, and private data bases charge payment (The art loss register offers monthly subscriptions) and require users to fill out a form so thorough it resembles a police interrogation concerning both the identity of the person requesting the information and the object in question. Some even ask that the applicant submit himself to American law, whatever his nationality. Under these conditions, it is hard not to feel “presumably guilty”...

[1] Klaus Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625) Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Dumont Buchverlag Köln, Cologne 1979, page 597, n° 237.

[2] Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) was the son of Jan Brueghel the Elder (also known as ‘Velvet’ Brueghel, 1568-1625), the nephew of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and the grandson of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), the painter of peasant scenes.

[3] Klaus Ertz, Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) the paintings with oeuvre catalogue, Flemish painters in the circle of the great masters volume 1, Luca Verlag Freren, 1984, p. 256, n° 77.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023