The Famed Jewish Art Dealer Who Fought to Retrieve 400 Stolen Works from the Nazis

Artsy 14 January 2019
By Benjamin Sutton

Vincent van Gogh, The Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888
Rijksmuseum Kroeller-Mueller, Otterlo

In October 1919, Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg opened his first solo exhibition by a recent addition to his gallery roster, Pablo Picasso . The startling display of 167 drawings and watercolors marked a dramatic break with the Cubist style Picasso had helped popularize, and the beginning of an important partnership between the artist and Rosenberg that would last until 1940, when the dealer was forced to flee France as the Nazis advanced.
In those two intervening decades, Rosenberg became the world’s most important art dealer, representing not only Picasso, but also Georges Braque beginning in 1923, Fernand Léger as of 1926, and Henri Matisse starting in 1936. Rosenberg’s two-story gallery at 21 Rue la Boétie in Paris’s 8th Arrondissement came to be known as the “French Florence,” described by French art critic and historian Pierre Nahon as “an essential meeting place for everyone who wants to follow the development and the work of the innovative painters.”

Shortly after the opening of that first Picasso show in 1919, Rosenberg, who lived with his family in the apartments above the gallery, convinced the artist to move into a vacant flat next door at 23 Rue la Boétie. The business partners suddenly became neighbors and fast friends, visiting each other regularly and referring to each other as “Pic” and “Rosi” in their frequent correspondence. According to Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, during this period, the artist would sometimes step onto his balcony and wave his latest canvas until he got Rosenberg’s attention. It was one of modern art’s most important and mutually advantageous relationships; or, as Nahon later wrote: “The artist and the gallery owner made one another.”

A family affair

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892–95.
Paul Rosenberg owed some of his savvy as a dealer to his father, who nurtured in him both a refined eye and sharp business sense. Unlike his brother Léonce—whose Galerie de l’Effort Moderne had represented Picasso for the three years prior to Paul poaching him—Paul understood that he would have to balance support for avant-garde artists with sales of works by more established figures, including .
Paul and Léonce had grown up among such works after their father, Alexandre Rosenberg, left a career as a grain merchant to become an antiques dealer, eventually falling hard for the Impressionists . By the time he was 16, Paul began working for his father and honing his eye. When he was just 19, Paul’s father dispatched him to London to open an outpost of the family business. He had mixed results across the English Channel, though he did manage to buy two Vincent van Gogh drawings for £40. Back in Paris, Alexandre Rosenberg set up his sons with a space on the Avenue de l’Opéra in 1906 to carry on the family business after he retired, but Paul quickly grew listless.
“I was successful, but I was troubled by the idea that I was selling paintings I didn’t like,” he later wrote in an unfinished memoir quoted by his granddaughter, journalist Anne Sinclair, in her 2012 book My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Family Memoir of Art and War. “I realized that if I were going to compete with the big auction houses of the day, I needed to buy only the highest-quality works, and rely on time to make a name for myself.”
Over the next four decades, Paul would do just that, striking out on his own and, in 1912, opening his gallery at 21 Rue la Boétie. There, according to an announcement laying out his program for the space, Paul planned to show a mix of works by acknowledged 19th-century masters and pathbreaking contemporary painters. In the same announcement, he made clear that his gallery would be no ordinary showroom, pledging to fund the publication of catalogues for every show and writing that “the shortcoming of contemporary exhibitions is that they show an artist’s work in isolation. So I intend to hold group exhibitions of decorative art.”
And so it was that Paul’s adventurous exhibition program mixed Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres , and Gustave Courbet with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Marie Laurencin , and
Amedeo Modigliani. And though he was a great promoter of the avant-garde art of his day, Rosenberg still had his prejudices. Surrealism, for instance, was of absolutely no interest to him. It’s said that Salvador Dalí
once approached him in a restaurant to ask if he’d be interested in representing him, and the dealer shot back: “Monsieur, my gallery is a serious institution, not made for clowns.”
But Rosenberg was completely devoted to the artists in whom he believed. He was a relentless champion of their work with museums, loaning works for major exhibitions in Europe and the U.S. In consultation with his friend Alfred H. Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, he loaned more than 30 paintings to the institution for the blockbuster exhibition “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art.” The timing of that exhibition, which opened in New York City on November 15, 1939, was darkly fortuitous, coming two and a half months after the Nazis invaded Poland. It meant that those paintings, at least, would not be at the gallery the following spring when the Nazis took Paris.

New regime at 21 Rue la Boétie

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson, ca. 1879.

Shortly after France signed an armistice with the Nazis on June 22, 1940, the Reich’s ambassador to the Vichy government, Otto Abetz, provided the Gestapo with a list of Jewish art dealers and collectors in Paris. In addition to Paul Rosenberg, the list included his colleagues Jacques Seligmann and Georges Wildenstein. Luckily, when the Nazis arrived at 21 Rue la Boétie, Rosenberg and his family were long gone. They had fled Paris in February 1940, first relocating to a small town near Bordeaux and then, after traveling through Spain and reaching Portugal, landing in New York City on September 20, 1940 (Barr had pleaded with the American authorities to allow the family to enter the country). Of the immediate family, only Rosenberg’s brother Léonce opted to stay in Paris—surviving the occupation, miraculously, only to die in 1947—while Rosenberg’s son Alexandre, 19 at the time, stayed behind in Europe to fight for the Allies.
Meanwhile—aside from the works Rosenberg had sent abroad, a group he’d stored in Tours under his chauffeur’s name, and 162 paintings he’d placed in a bank vault near the southwestern town where the family spent the spring of 1940—the bulk of Rosenberg’s collection, his gallery inventory, and its archive were seized when the Nazis raided 21 Rue la Boétie in July 1940. In September 1941, they also seized the contents of the bank vault. Another 75 works that had remained at the house in the southeast where the family lived in 1940 were also taken. All told, the Nazis looted some 400 paintings belonging to Rosenberg.
But the Nazis’ plans for Rosenberg’s property didn’t end there. They requisitioned 21 Rue la Boétie and, in May 1941, inaugurated the Institut d’Étude des Questions Juives (IEQJ, or Institute for the Study of Jewish Questions) in the former gallery space. The IEQJ was a flagrantly anti-Semitic institution that offered pseudo-scientific propaganda classes on subjects such as “Ethnoraciology” and “Eugenics and Demographics.”

Nominally run by the French, the organization was actually under the direct control of Theodor Dannecker, the head of the Gestapo’s Judenreferat. That September, it opened the now-infamous exhibition “The Jew and France” at the Palais Berlitz, whose nationalistic, anti-Semitic exhibits were seen by somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million visitors in Paris before going on a tour of other French cities. For comparison’s sake, MoMA’s “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art” drew just over 100,000 visitors in its 54-day run.

Tracking down the pieces

Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1892–94.

On August 27, 1944, two days after the liberation of Paris, members of the Resistance warned the Second Armored Division that one final train of Nazi soldiers and 148 crates full of modern art was about to leave for Germany. Six volunteers and a lieutenant from the Free French forces hurried to hijack the train in the suburbs of Paris, stopping it at Aulnay. That lieutenant was Alexandre Rosenberg, Paul’s son; the last time he’d seen some of the paintings in those crates was on the walls of his parents’ apartment at 21 Rue la Boétie. The heroic episode served as the inspiration for the 1964 Burt Lancaster blockbuster The Train.
Shortly after the liberation, the French government seized 21 Rue la Boétie and, eventually, returned the property to Rosenberg. But as his granddaughter relates in My Grandfather’s Gallery, between the grim uses to which the property had been put under Nazi occupation and the piles of IEQJ propaganda books left behind in its basement, Rosenberg was determined never to live there again. Besides, by then, he had established himself and his gallery in New York. He sold the building in January 1953. Before handing over the keys, he had the four mosaics Braque had made for the gallery floor cut out and turned into tables.
Rosenberg devoted much of his energy in the final 15 years of his life to recovering the art that had been taken from him by the Nazis. Shortly after the war, France’s restitution commission returned the works from the train his son had helped stop, as well as others that had been found stockpiled at Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. As a gesture of appreciation, Rosenberg donated 33 of them to French museums.
During the years he spent tracking down Nazi loot, his New York gallery, Paul Rosenberg & Company, continued to thrive. After he was demobilized in 1946, Alexandre reunited with his father in the United States and joined the family business, becoming an associate in the gallery in 1952, and then taking its helm when his father died in 1959.
At the time of his death, at age 78, Paul Rosenberg had recovered more than 300 of the works the Nazis had stolen from him. In subsequent decades, his children and other descendants continued to fight for the restitution of his collection. In her 2012 book, Sinclair, his granddaughter, estimated that about 60 of Rosenberg’s paintings were still missing.

Still in the family

Vincent van Gogh, La chambre de Van Gogh à Arles (Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles), 1889
Alexandre continued to run the gallery his father had established on East 79th Street until his death in 1987, when it closed. In 2015, Paul’s granddaughter Marianne Rosenberg revived the family business, launching Rosenberg & Co. on East 66th Street, where it continues the business model that Paul pioneered, offering a mix of contemporary artists and established masters.
From time to time, pieces of the Rosenberg treasure still resurface. In 1998, the family sued the Seattle Art Museum, alleging that a Matisse painting in its collection, Odalisque (1928), had been taken from Rosenberg. The museum commissioned research that confirmed the painting had been among the 162 seized from the bank vault in southwestern France, and in 1999, the museum’s board voted to return it to the Rosenbergs, marking a happy resolution to the first Nazi loot restitution lawsuit filed against a U.S. museum. More recently, in 2014, the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter museum near Oslo returned Matisse’s Profil bleu devant la cheminée (1937) to a member of the Rosenberg family. The following year, another Matisse, Woman with a Fan (1923), which had turned up among the trove seized from Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment, was returned to the Rosenbergs.
Some works are still being kept from the family, however. In 1987, an Edgar Degas pastel portrait that was taken by the Nazis resurfaced in the inventory of Hamburg-based dealer Mathias Hans. Though the family contacted Hans, he refused to identify the work’s current owner, demanding full payment to restitute the work. For now, that Degas remains out of the Rosenbergs’ reach.
But while some of Paul Rosenberg’s collection remains hidden away, much of it is accessible to his heirs and the wider public through the countless works he gifted to museums or placed with collectors, who, in turn, donated them to institutions. He recalled an encounter with one such piece—now on prominent display at the Art Institute of Chicago—in an unfinished autobiography Sinclair quotes in her book about her grandfather.
“One day when I was about ten, my father led me to the shop window of a dealer who kept a gallery on the rue Le Peletier, to show me a painting that made me shriek with horror,” Rosenberg wrote, describing a painting of a shabby bedroom rendered in “violent colors” with warped walls and dancing furniture. It was one of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles (1889).
“My father calmed me down and said, ‘I don’t know this artist, and the canvas isn’t signed, but I’m going to find out about him because I’d like to buy some of his paintings,’” Rosenberg continued. “The canvas was by Van Gogh, it’s the one that’s in the Art Institute of Chicago, and which, by an irony of fate, I myself sold about 30 years later.”
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