By Rebecca Trounson
It was a difficult situation for the Israel Museum, its director acknowledged: the claim that a painting in its collection, a well-known work by Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, had been owned by a Jewish family that was forced to sell it during the Nazi era.
But after an intensive investigation, the Jerusalem museum has now recognized that the heir of Max Silberberg, a German businessman and art collector who died in the Holocaust, holds legal title to the century-old “Boulevard Montmartre: Spring,” museum director James Snyder said Friday.
And in a resolution that appears to be the first of its kind for treasures looted by the Nazis, the heir, 85-year-old Gerta Silberberg of Britain, will allow the museum to continue displaying the painting on a long-term loan. “In a way, there was an appropriateness to this work remaining in the Jewish state,” Snyder said. “And I think there was an understanding of that on the part of Gerta Silberberg.”
He said it was the first time that the 35-year-old museum has dealt with such a claim, although the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the opening of archives in the former East Germany several years later has made it possible for many heirs of Holocaust victims to recover works of art and other valuables that were taken by the Nazis and eventually sold to museums or private collectors.
In fact, another artwork from the Silberberg collection, a Vincent van Gogh sketch worth more than $6 million, was returned to the estate last year. It had hung in Berlin’s National Gallery for more than 50 years, unbeknownst to Max Silberberg’s son Alfred or to Gerta, Alfred’s wife, who became the estate’s sole heir after her husband died.
Snyder said that attorneys for Gerta Silberberg alerted the museum last summer to the Pissarro painting’s troubled history and that it began an immediate investigation. Joachim and Lionel Pissarro, great-grandsons of the painter and experts on his art, worked with the museum to prove that the painting was among 143 that Max Silberberg, an industrialist from Breslau, was forced to sell in 1935. He died in 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp.
The Israel Museum received the Pissarro in 1997 as a bequest from New York collectors John and Frances Loeb, who bought it in 1960 after it passed through a number of hands after World War II. In 1985, the Loebs announced their intention to give the painting to the museum in honor of its 20th anniversary.
The painting will continue to hang in the museum as part of its modern art collection, Snyder said, but will be accompanied by a detailed plaque explaining its history and that of its owners.
Snyder said some callers had asked him whether the Israeli museum was embarrassed to discover looted Nazi artworks among its own collection. His view, he said, is “that we have nothing to be embarrassed about. Our donors bought the painting in good faith and gave it to the museum.”
But the fact that the Pissarro ended up in Israel does add a certain “dimension” to its history, he said–one that he feels is now very happily resolved.
Gerta Silberberg could not be reached for comment. But John Simon, a representative of the Silberberg estate in Britain, praised the “timely and respectful resolution” of the painting’s ownership in a statement released by the museum.
“The late Alfred Silberberg, his late father, Max, and all of his family who perished in the Holocaust would take comfort in knowing that this beautiful work is being shared now with the people of Israel,” he said.