"Having researched this to the end of the road, we decided we had to return the painting; it was the right thing to do," said Art Institute Director Kaywin Feldman.
Other museums have faced similar challenges to their collections. The institute's saga began in 1997 when the museum received a letter claiming that the painting had been taken from Alphonse Kann, a legendary French collector who owned "tons of Picassos, Braques and late-19th-century Impressionist paintings," according to Patrick Noon, the institute's paintings curator. His story helped inspire a 1964 movie, "The Train," starring Burt Lancaster, about a trainload of art that the Germans tried to spirit away before the Allies liberated Paris in 1944.
Much of Kann's art was returned to him after World War II, but not the Leger. That painting was bequeathed to the museum in 1961 by Minneapolis businessman Putnam Dana McMillan, a General Mills vice president who bought it from the Buchholz Gallery in New York in 1951. No one questioned the picture's history. Nazi-era archives were sealed in France and inaccessible in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.
Responding to the claim took years because the museum had to establish if it was legitimate. Was this Leger the same one Kann had owned? ("Smoke Over Rooftops" was a theme Leger painted at least six times.) If so, what had happened to the picture between 1939, when Kann fled Paris on the eve of war, and 1949 when a New York art dealer bought it from a French gallery? Did Kann sell it freely, or did the Nazis confiscate it?
"Many of the people who could tell stories and remember what happened were gone," Feldman said.
Not the first such claim
The institute is not alone in facing a claim that it harbored Nazi loot. Between 1998 and July 2006, American museums identified in their collections 22 works that had been stolen by the Nazis, according to the New York-based Association of Art Museum Directors. The art was either returned to heirs or settlements were reached, in some cases allowing the art to remain at the museums. Institutions that have given back art include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth and the Seattle Art Museum. The Centre Pompidou in Paris returned a Braque painting to Alphonse Kann's heirs a few years ago.
Not until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 did people began to grapple seriously with the fallout of the Nazi practice of confiscating art from Jewish collectors or forcing them to sell it under unconscionable circumstances. At that point museums realized they had to "do the right thing," which often meant returning the art to heirs, even if the art had been acquired innocently. However, as a nonprofit institution, the institute is legally bound to care for its art on behalf of the public, and couldn't simply turn over the painting without establishing its rightful owner.
Resolution of the Leger painting's fate required a French lawsuit and years of painstaking scrutiny of Nazi-era documents, gallery and auction records in four countries. The research established that, after Kann fled to London, the Nazis confiscated the bulk of his collection and in 1940 moved it to the Jeu de Paume, a museum in central Paris, where it was inventoried and stayed during most of the war. The collection was so extensive that the Nazis' list ran to 60 typed pages.
The Leger painting, however, remained in Kann's house until Nov. 5, 1942, when France's German-controlled government auctioned the house's contents. A Paris art dealer, Galerie Leiris, bought the Leger at that auction and subsequently sold it to Buchholz Gallery.
Both that gallery and the Buchholz have complicated histories. During the war, Leiris was essentially a front for a prominent German-Jewish art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who had transferred title to his business to his French Catholic sister-in-law, Louise Leiris, when the Nazis moved in and threatened to confiscate his company. Buchholz Gallery was established in the 1930s by Curt Valentin, a protege of a Berlin art dealer, Karl Buchholz, who was one of four German art dealers whom the Nazis allowed to sell the modern art they confiscated from museums and private collectors. While Valentin has not been implicated in the Nazis' nefarious deeds, his role in the transfer of modern art out of Europe is ambiguous at best.
"I don't know what to make of him," curator Noon said of Valentin, "although I've never heard him disparaged like the dealers who dealt directly with Hermann Goering" and other Nazis.
Making matters more difficult, the current owners of Galerie Leiris refused to open its archives until forced to do so by a 2001 lawsuit in a different case.
A costly process
Settling such claims is expensive. The Minneapolis museum hired scholars in Paris and London, corresponded with bureaucrats in Germany and studied archives in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. It has not calculated the cost of that work, but the Art Institute of Chicago reported that between 1998 and 2006 it spent more than $500,000 studying the ownership history of art in its collection.
What will happen to the Leger painting now is unclear. No one from the French collector's family could be reached for comment.
Initially the museum hoped Kann's heirs would lend or give it to the museum but that proved impossible. Asked if the institute would try to buy it back if the Leger were to be offered at auction, Feldman and Noon smiled ruefully and shook their heads.
"We have two other very nice Leger paintings in the collection," Noon said.