A Life's Work Looted By The Nazis

The Jewish Week 18 March 2009
By Caroline Lagnado

Pieter Lastman (ca. 1583­1633),

The story of Jacques Goudstikker, the larger-than-life art collector and tastemaker for Amsterdam's cultured upper crust in the first half of the 20th century, can be told through his acquisitions.

A new show at The Jewish Museum does just that, exhibiting not only an extraordinary collection of Old Master paintings, but also the life and death of a man who lived famously and whose death was remarkable in its awfulness. Goudstikker, who ran a successful art gallery out of a 17th century mansion, was a man of the world who spoke four languages. His business card was printed in English and his exhibition catalogs in French (to reflect his ever-expanding gallery business and appeal to the greater art community) as well as Dutch. Goudstikker (pronounced Houdsticker) was known to entertain lavishly in his Amstel River home as well as at his country estate on the Vecht River. His clients included William Randolph Hearst and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When in 1939 Goudstikker feared imminent Nazi invasion, he and his Viennese wife, Desiree von Halban Kurtz, a musician, fled Amsterdam along with their son, Edward. Feeling cramped on board their ship out of Holland, Goudstikker, took a walk one night, and tragically fell to his death through an uncovered hatch.

While the Goudstikkers left behind more than 1,400 pieces of art along with gallery exhibition catalogs, photo archives and other records, they luckily took, housed in a small black leather address book, a neatly typed catalog of the magnificent collection. Desiree kept this notebook with her and it was this along with Goudstikker's admirable archives and catalogs that helped the family fight for the return of its looted art.

Peter Sutton developed the Goudstikker exhibit last spring at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., organizing it in strict chronological order. However, The Jewish Museum's Karen Levitov curated the New York stop of the exhibit around the narrative of Goudstikker's life story and the elements of looting and restitution. Using major themes to guide its organization, the show starts primarily with mythological and biblical scenes, moving onto landscapes and cityscapes, and ending with portraiture, still lifes and genre scenes.

The exhibit tells a Holocaust story not about gas chambers or concentration camps, but about the need to escape an established home in haste and the repercussions this extended family has faced ever since. This story is as much about recent research and courtroom battles as it is about Goudstikker or even his art. This show becomes less about the small Jacob van Ruisdael on view or the Moreelse portraits and more about the man who bought them, with his collection a vehicle through which to tell his story.

The tragic elements in Goudstikker's story do not end with his untimely death. While the Goudstikkers were en route to North America, Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command, took some 800 pieces of their art to Germany for his country estate, saving other pieces for Hitler's planned art museum. Alois Meidl, Goering's associate, ran the gallery in Amsterdam throughout the war under the trusted Goudstikker name and making a profit from whatever art remained. Though Desiree tried to reclaim the art in 1946, the Dutch government kept her husband's collection for its national collection; it took until 2006 for 200 of the 1,400 pieces to return to the family. Experts examined exhibit labels, stamps and seals, marks of the artworks' past lives to verify authenticity. 

This follows other successful Holocaust restitution settlements (including the Rothschilds of Vienna and the heirs of Jewish industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer), though these cases haven't been without detractors, who claim the biggest winners are the lawyers. Sir Norman Rosenthal one of the most vocal critics, penned a piece in The Art Newspaper last November in which he wrote (as someone who lost relatives in the Holocaust) that restitution processes are benefiting the rich, and too much time has elapsed for restitution claims to be just.

"If we were still in 1950 and the people who owned the Manet or the Monet were still alive, then it would surely be correct to give these paintings back," Rosenthal writes, "but not now and not to grandchildren and great-grandchildren." In 2006 Medy van der Laan, Holland's deputy culture minister likened the return of the Goudstikker paintings to a "bloodletting."

Goudstikker's daughter- in-law Marei von Saher retorts, "That's just too bad." Addressing the issue at a recent preview of the exhibit, von Saher expressed her gratitude to her team of lawyers in both Holland and America who worked with researchers to reclaim her former husband's family's art. To pay the extensive legal fees von Saher auctioned nearly 100 pieces in 2007 and offered a painting to the Dutch government as a gift.

In light of the extensive research and intellectual capital that was part of Goudstikker's successful art gallery business, it is sometimes difficult to remember that he was, after all, running a business not a museum. Due to the Nazi looting of his business, the Goudstikker family lost its ability to deal in art, its stock having been taken. The subsequent return of these few artworks which are part of this traveling exhibit are finding their way to a number of museums; the world will watch what von Saher and her daughters decide to do with these pieces next.

"Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker," runs through Aug. 2 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street.

RELATED:  When A Novel About Art Imitates Life

In her new novel, "Pictures at an Exhibition," Sara Houghteling imagines the life of the Berenzon art family, whose story nearly parallels that of the Goudstikkers. Set in Paris (rather than Amsterdam), this well-observed novel is about the art-collecting family of Daniel Berenzon, modeled after the real-life Parisian Jewish gallery owner, Paul Rosenberg, a high-profile salesman who helped launch the careers of modern masters like Picasso and Matisse. Rosenberg was known for allowing his artists to experiment and take risks, and as a result produce art that changed the face of the art world. Other characters in Houghteling's book are also based on historical figures such as some of Berenzon's fellow art dealers. The beautiful and brilliant Rose Clement, Daniel's gallery assistant turned wartime museum employee, is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, former curator of Paris' Jeu de Paume museum who secretly documented Nazi lootings in a notebook of her own while she was forced to work for the Third Reich.

Berenzon, a wealthy secular, Jew, is, like Goudstikker, married to a beautiful musician. The Berenzons' only son, Max, is obsessed with proving himself worthy to take over his father's established art gallery. The family hides throughout the war outside of Paris, and when Max and Daniel return after the war, the gallery has been emptied, everything looted by the Nazis. In the mess of postwar Paris, Max makes it his mission to find his father's lost paintings as well as Rose, with whom he has fallen in love.

Writing mostly while she was on a Fulbright grant in Paris, Houghteling was greatly inspired by the stories told by her grandmother, Fiora, who lived in Paris in the 1940s while the author's grandfather, Jim Houghteling worked for the OSS, the precursor for the CIA.

Living and working in the City of Light 50 years later, Houghteling recalls feeling out of place and lonely as an American. In one instance, which the author shared in an interview with The Jewish Week, she wandered into an Orthodox synagogue in the 15th arrondissement and felt alienated within this denomination of Judaism. Raised Reform in Brookline, Mass., Houghteling remembers feeling grateful when men in the synagogue covered all of the women and children with their tallits at one point in the service, including her into their community. In "Pictures at an Exhibition," Houghteling gives Max this experience, allowing him to feel part of Paris' Orthodox Jewish community, about which, having been raised secularly, he knows little.

Houghteling's novel is well-researched and well-written, appealing to those with an interest in art, Paris and the effects of the Holocaust. Borrowing her title from Mussorgsky's piano composition written in memory of the late Russian painter Victor Hartmann, Houghteling writes in memory of both art and people now gone. She describes her characters and their surroundings in detail, making this debut a piece of historical fiction that draws the reader into its hidden details.

Caroline Lagnado
© website copyright Central Registry 2023