Now, he's 84 years old – and in a ceremony in Paris on Tuesday, the American was finally given back a piece of his late grandfather's memory: France has returned six of his stolen family masterpieces.
The restitution of the works – including paintings by Alessandro Longhi and Sebastiano Ricci – is part of France's ongoing effort to return hundreds of looted artworks that Jewish owners lost during the war that still hang in the Louvre and other museums. The move ends years of struggle for Selldorff, whose claims were validated by the French government last year after years of researching the fates of the works.
"I'm extremely grateful and very moved," said Selldorff, who flew in from Boston for the event at France's Culture Ministry where the oil paintings were on temporary display. "These paintings were in this fog of war. The restitution... was not easy. It took a long time."
Selldorff with France's Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti (Photo: AFP)
The artworks were stolen or sold under duress up to seven decades ago as Jewish industrialist and art collector Richard Neumann – and his family – fled Nazi-occupied Europe. It is not clear exactly to whom Neumann sold them, and the route they took to show up in French museums is unclear. They found places at the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art of Saint-Etienne, the Agen Fine Arts Museum and the Tours Fine Art Museum.
"After losing most of his family assets and a good part of his collection to the Nazis in Austria in 1938, he came to Paris for several years and then had to flee again, this time with my grandmother at one point on foot over the Pyrenees, to Spain and then eventually to Cuba," he said.
'Love of art makes us human'
The paintings, meanwhile, stayed behind – all six destined for display in the art gallery Adolf Hitler wanted to build in his hometown of Linz, Austria, according to a catalog for the planned museum.
"I only wish my grandfather was here to be able to be a part of all this, but I am sure he is watching from somewhere upstairs, so that's fine," Selldorff said.
At the end of the war, with Hitler dead and European cities rebuilding, artworks were left "unclaimed" and many thousands that were thought to have been French-owned found their ways into the country's top museums. Many of the 100,000 possessions looted, stolen or appropriated between 1940 and 1944 in France have been returned to Jewish families, but France says that some 2,000 artworks still lie in state institutions.
With a twinkle in his eye and a youthful smile, Selldorff remembers wandering around his grandfather's collection.
"I remember the house (in Vienna) very well, I remember the existence of these dark rooms with these paintings hanging," he said, recalling that his grandfather Neumann also opened up the collection to the Austrian public.
"I too hope that some of the art will go on loan to museums and exhibited so that other people besides our family can appreciate them," he said.
Selldorff says he's spoken to some US museums about the possibility of showing the art to the American public.
Overall, he says it's about being able to pass to his three children and five grandchildren a piece of his grandfather's stolen history.
"His love of art is what I want to pass on," he said. "It's what makes us human."