A Lost Legacy Belatedly Restored

Wall Street Journal 2 July 2008
By Matthew Gurewitsch
Greenwich, Conn.

Bruce Museum
Through Sept. 7

The Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker was not the only member of his family to lose his life during the Holocaust. The catalog of "Reclaimed," the handsome, paradoxically disheartening exhibition at the Bruce Museum, lists nearly a score who were murdered in the death camps. Jacques's death, unlike theirs, was an accident, more like a savage joke.

On May 13, 1940 -- three days after the German invasion of the Netherlands -- Goudstikker; his wife, Désirée (known as Dési); and their 16-month-old son, Eduard (known as Edo), boarded the cargo ship SS Bodegraven at the port of IJmuiden. On May 15, they reached Dover, England, where they were refused entry. At some point the following night, Jacques went up on deck from the crowded hold for fresh air, fell down a staircase and broke his neck.

At 42, he left a remarkable legacy. A third-generation art dealer, Goudstikker had transformed a solid family business into something infinitely more visionary and romantic. (The first syllable of the name rhymes with cloud; the hard part is the G, the same guttural sound as the Scottish ch in loch.) Unlike his father and father's father, he dealt not only in the local specialty of Old Dutch Masters, but also in the French and Italians from the Gothic period to Rococo as well as more recent movements from Northern Europe. The clientele he served was discriminating and international. The exhibitions he organized were of scholarly importance and chic into the bargain. He led the life of a merchant prince, complete with castle.

At the time of Goudstikker's death, his inventory in Amsterdam came to some 1,400 works of art of sufficient quality to attract Hitler's rapacious second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who snapped them up for stuivers on the guilder. When the war was over, the Allies returned any Goudstikker property they could find to the Dutch government with the understanding that it would be restored to the owners. (This was standard procedure.) Instead, the pictures wound up in public collections. Dési tried to reclaim them but failed; she died in 1996. Edo died a few months later.

With them, Jacques's last blood relations were gone, and so the story might have ended, but for Edo's widow, Marei von Saher. Armed with the notebook in which Jacques had kept his meticulous inventory -- Dési retrieved it from his pocket when he died -- she soon renewed the family's claim. The process would take eight more years, but in February 2006 the Dutch government did the right thing. (Hard as it may be to muster much admiration for justice so unconscionably deferred, other nations -- France, Switzerland, Russia and the U.S. among them -- have yet to make good on such obligations and in all likelihood never will.) In 2007, Mrs. von Saher sold about three-fourths of the reclaimed material privately and at auction, fetching prices reportedly in the seven to eight figures for a single canvas.

Before scattering the collection to the four winds, however, Ms. von Saher had the inspiration to approach the Bruce Museum about mounting an exhibition celebrating the father-in-law she never knew. It is her good fortune and the public's that Peter C. Sutton, the museum's executive director and CEO, is a noted scholar of the Northern Baroque, a Goudstikker specialty. Granted a scant three hours in a warehouse in The Hague, he made the selection that is now on view. (A final small room includes memorabilia, including Goudstikker's all-important pocket notebook.) The show hangs in Greenwich through Sept. 7. It will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York from March 15 to Aug. 2, 2009; additional dates are under discussion.

[Salomon van Ruysdael's 'River Landscape With Ferry' (1649) is one of two paintings in the exhibit with a view of the 17th-century Nyenrode castle.]
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Salomon van Ruysdael's 'River Landscape With Ferry' (1649) is one of two paintings in the exhibit with a view of the 17th-century Nyenrode castle.

How representative Mr. Sutton's cross-section is would be impossible to guess; he had the quick eye to catch not one but two 17th-century views of Nyenrode, the castle that Goudstikker acquired for himself in the 20th. One of them, by Salomon van Ruysdael, a Dutch landscape painter of the first rank, has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. There are first-rate examples of the work of Rembrandt's teacher (Pieter Lastman) and of Rembrandt's most famous pupil (Ferdinand Bol). Jan Steen, whose name is a byword among the Dutch for households in uproar, puts in a decorous appearance with the mythological "Sacrifice of Iphigenia," once in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds. (He lectured on it at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.) The once-flourishing, understandably neglected genre of portraits of dead children -- bedded on straw to prevent their souls from sticking to the bed rather than rising to heaven -- is memorably represented in a canvas by Bartholomeus van der Helst. A pair of stunning formal portraits is from the hand of Jan van Ravesteyn; Mr. Sutton's helpful label points out the contrast between the husband's flamboyant lace collar "à la confusion" and the wife's double ruff in the stately millstone style.

The show is full of such details and surprises. And while much of the work falls into standard categories -- apart from those named, a still life here, a Resurrection there -- nothing looks generic. Each has its quirks; each looks, in the literal sense of the word, chosen. While Claude Lorrain is here, along with Charles LeBrun, household names are the exception rather than the rule; what impresses, above all, is the sheer quality of the painting and the consistently excellent condition. (The poor Tiepolo is an exception; if authentic, it is by the second-rate Lorenzo, not his brother, the great Giandomenico.) On the evidence, Jacques Goudstikker knew his business as well as he knew his own mind. He was no chaser of fashions but a tastemaker, a connoisseur.

"Let me live modestly, but in peace," he said before the end. "I had property. I don't need it any more." That wish went unfulfilled. Now that property is his memorial. How many like him have yet to receive their due?

Mr. Gurewitsch writes for the Journal on the arts and creative personalities.
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