Justice done as Matisse finds a new home

AP 24 November 2008

This photo provided Monday Nov. 24, 2008 by the French Culture Ministry shows the 1898 oil canvas "Paysage, le mur rose" (Landscape, the Pink Wall) by French painter Henri Matisse. 

PARIS — Finally, justice for Henri Matisse's "Le Mur Rose."

The oil painting, which was stolen from a rich German Jewish family sometime after 1937 and kept by a Nazi officer responsible for delivering poison gas to Auschwitz, is to be given Thursday to a British charity that supports medical rescue in Israel.

The story of how "Le Mur Rose," or "The Pink Wall," made its way through the war to France is as surprising as the colorful painting itself, and steeped with death, mystery and injustice. Stolen from Jews, proceeds from the expected sale of the painting will go toward the Magen David Adom network of ambulances, paramedics and emergency treatment centers in Israel.

"It's a remarkable and in some ways slightly creepy story," said Stuart Glyn, chairman of the British charity Magen David Adom UK. He will take delivery of the artwork at the French Culture Ministry in Paris.

The painting belonged to Harry Fuld, a German Jew who made his fortune in telephones, founding the H. Fuld & Co. Telefon und Telegraphenwerke AG in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1899, the charity says.

"The Fuld family were almost manic collectors, with the broadest of tastes," Glyn said in a phone interview.

After Fuld's death on a business trip to Switzerland in 1932, his art collection passed to his son, Harry Fuld Jr. The son fled Nazi Germany in 1937, packing the collection into crates, which he gave to a shipping company to transport. The collection never left. Instead, the Nazis confiscated it. Kurt Gerstein, an officer in the Nazis' murderous Waffen SS, got the Matisse, either as a bribe or because he bought it, Glyn said.

An expert in decontamination techniques, Gerstein was assigned to the Hygiene Institute of the SS, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On its Web site, it says he was responsible for delivering Zyklon B poison used in the gas chambers to Auschwitz and other camps.

Gerstein surrendered to French authorities in April 1945, as the Nazi regime was crumbling, and was held at Paris' Cherche-Midi prison, the museum says. It says he wrote a report there recounting his service with the SS and hanged himself in July 1945.

French gendarmes recovered the painting three years later from a cache near Gerstein's home in Tuebingen, Germany, said Didier Schulmann, curator at the Pompidou Center national museum of modern art in Paris. It has been part of the museum's collection since 1949.

Matisse painted the landscape, showing a building behind a wall, in 1898. The colors are vivid, the perspective a little unsettling as it leans left toward the viewer.

"It is not an absolute masterpiece but it is surprising," said Schulmann in an interview. While looted artworks often have complex stories, "this one is particularly amazing," he added.

Harry Fuld Jr. died in 1963 and for reasons unknown willed his estate to Gisela Martin, a woman who has remained something of a mystery in this saga. She in turn left her estate to the British charity when she died in Switzerland in 1992, which explains why Magen David Adom UK is now getting the Matisse.

Glyn said they have not been able to determine the nature of the relationship between Fuld and Martin, why he left her his estate or why Martin in turn made Magen David Adom the beneficiary of her will.

The Matisse is worth a "a good six-figure sum," but will first be displayed in a museum, said Glyn. He said he's in discussions with museums in Germany and Israel.

The charity is also trying to recover other parts of the Fuld collection, which included 12th-century Buddha statues, 16th-century Italian masters, furniture and other art, Glyn said.

"There are pieces in the Hermitage (museum in Russia), there are pieces in museums in Germany, there are pieces believe it or not in Israel," he said. "Our representatives are in discussions and negotiations with a whole raft of people, including national museums and governments, to see whether some of this stuff can come back. Some of the stuff is far more important than the Matisse."

But trying to prove ownership, he added, "is a long, slow and expensive process."
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