The Jewish art dealer Samuel Hartveld fled Antwerp just before the war. It was known that his library was looted by the Nazis. But where did his valuable paintings end up? A revealing search.
On August 15, 1940, the time had come. Two and a half months after Samuel Hartveld and his second wife Clara Meiboom had secured a life-saving visa to America, they boarded the steamship Exeter in Lisbon. On the passenger list, I read that Hartveld was 62. Clara had had it filled in that she was 52, although she was 59 at the time. As contact person in Antwerp they gave 'A. Hartveld' in '3 Rue Cabbo Vennis'. That 'A' was Adelin, Hartveld's son. The address must have been misunderstood by the counter clerk. The Jewish art dealer's gallery was located at 3 Otto Venius Street, a side street off the Meir.
The 1927 building had two stores, a gallery, five apartments above and a janitor's house. So Hartveld was still able to derive income from it. Today a Zara sits in the building. The facade is elaborate in green, flamed marble. There is a winged door at both ends; at the top, the glass is crowned with the wrought-iron letters "Otto Venius.
This is what Hartveld called his gallery, I see from his correspondence with German Rubens expert Ludwig Burchard. 'Otto Vaenius House,' states the logo on his letterhead. From the correspondence, they were two connoisseurs among themselves. One of their last letters was about an interesting painting. In 1938 Hartveld wrote: 'The portrait of Triest is already in Antwerp. Upon careful cleaning it has become much better. The "Anno 1611" had been painted on it falsely and is completely gone.' In February 1942, Hartveld sent another rare war letter - after that, mail traffic with America stopped.
So there is little chance that Hartveld found out that the Nazis had their eye on his extensive collection of art books in September 1942. A corky service announcement in the Nazi administration stated that the books had been packed in boxes 301 to 329 and transported to "unser Bibliothekshaus" on Livorno Street in Brussels. A few days later it was confirmed to a certain "Mr. Kunst" that the art library had been confiscated.
Who was this Kunst? And what did he have to do with the seizure?
Who "Mr. Kunst" was, I discovered in Paris in early 2016. In the Archives Nationales, I found a file on Hartveld. There I stumbled upon one of those solemn Nazi Bestallungsurkunden (Certificates of Appointment), which showed that 'Herr Heinrich Kunst' had been appointed administrator of the Samuel Hartveld firm. Excuse me, so it had not just been a book heist, a complete corporate takeover had occurred.
Further on in the Paris file was a document addressed to the Brüsseler Treuhandgesellschaft. That was the Nazi service that controlled the Belgian economy from Kantersteen 47 in Brussels. It showed that a week before the book heist, the Nazi services had inspected the contents of Galerie Hartveld. It read that they were interested in the books, but not the paintings. I recognized the signature - it was Heinrich Kunst's. He asked what to do with the paintings now. Should they be sold? He seemed to be in favour of that, because "that way the liquidation of the firm could be carried out most quickly.
In his file with the Aliens Police, which had kept meticulous records of who entered the country since the creation of Belgium, I saw that Heinrich Kunst was from Düsseldorf. In 1929, barely 21 years old, he had come to Antwerp to work in the port as a desk clerk. He was known as a member of the NSDAP and as fiercely Nazi. According to his report, he participated in "all the major congresses of the party in Germany".
In a remnant archive, which has since been transferred to the State Archives, in the fall of 2016 I found the financial audit that administrator Kunst had made of the gallery. It was no less than one A4 page long, and half of the usual ten sections he had left blank. For one fact from the vetting process, I was very grateful to him: he mentioned that Hartveld took out an 800,000-franc mortgage for his building. Thus I knew the value of the property. According to Kunst, the gallery contained 61 paintings. "In my opinion," he concluded, there was "no interest respectively possibility" to continue the business.
A compulsory liquidation of Jewish property, that was pure Nazi robbery
Heinrich Kunst wanted to sell the paintings in order to complete the liquidation of Galerie Hartveld as quickly as possible. But how? And to whom?
He tried at least once through an auction house. At the request of the Antwerp auction house Campo, art expert Arthur De Heuvel appraised the stock of paintings. On his valuation report there were not 61, but 66 paintings. Predominantly copies, uncertain attributions or paintings from the workshop of Van Dyck, Rubens, Bassano or Tiepolo. These are worth significantly less on the art market than works by the master himself. Barely three paintings De Heuvel considered worth more than 10,000 francs. A hunting scene by Frans Snyders he estimated at 35,000 francs, a portrait of Antonius Triest from the school of Van Dyck at 25,000 francs and a still life attributed to Jan Fyt at 15,000 francs. It never came to a sale at Campo.
Where Hartveld's paintings did end up, I found out through a chance routine check. I had come across the name of René Van de Broek in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I saw in it a coulisse figure who had a hand in a transport of paintings. In the archives of the Antwerp auction house Van Herck, I came across his name again. I saw that between 1941 and 1943 he offered paintings for sale at nine different auctions - for the one on March 17, 1941, even fifteen at a time. Apparently he was more than just an errand boy after all.
In 2019, after five years of research, I began forwarding names from the art market to the Auditor's Archives. I wanted to find out if they had been prosecuted after the war. For completeness, I added the name of René Van de Broek. On good luck. It turned out he had a file, and the contents were staggering.
The file showed that Van de Broek was a young man. Three days after the German invasion in May 1940, he had turned 31. He lived in Antwerp, Blindenstraat 10, and his occupation was listed as "painting repairer. Just a few days after the liberation of Brussels, in September 1944, he came to the attention of the courts. His studio in rue de Blinden had been sealed after two policemen found several dozen paintings by Rex leader Léon Degrelle there. When questioned about this, the 45 paintings turned out not to belong to Léon Degrelle, but to the Antwerp Count Léon Legrelle. He later confirmed this.
Van de Broek added sparingly during his interrogation that Léon Degrelle was also a customer of his. He had provided Degrelle with three 15th-century prayer books and a bust worth 440,000 francs, but the latter "had never paid anything. At his second interrogation before the auditor, in April 1945, Van de Broek said Degrelle had paid him in kind. In addition to a painting by Poussin and a collection of engravings, he had received two globes and a ship model from the 18th century. The latter was located in what he called "my" exhibition room. The address he gave was Otto Veniusstraat 3 - that of Galerie Hartveld.
At the gallery, investigators questioned the janitor. 'The exhibition hall "Otto Venius" was owned by Mr. Hartveld, a Jew currently residing in America,' she said. 'During the occupation, the house was confiscated by the Germans and placed under administration. The room with the paintings in it was bought by Mr. VandenBroek (sic) and continued to be operated by him.' I found her testimony revelatory, but the investigators did not go into it.
When questioned, Van de Broek admitted that the gallery was owned by Samuel Hartveld and had come under German management during the occupation. 'One of the Verwalters (administrators), den heer Kunst, came to ask me if I didn't want to take over that hall,' Van de Broek said. He drew the card of patriotism. 'Since the hall would be sold publicly by the Germans, I thought it would be better for me to dispose of the hall myself than to leave it to a German organization.' According to Van de Broek, he had taken over the hall and the paintings 'for 200,000 francs, which I believe represented the full value of the paintings that were still there at that time'. The statement went unnoticed by the interrogators. Yet research could have made it clear that Hartveld had taken out a mortgage of 800,000 francs and that 200,000 francs for 66 paintings and a large room in the centre of Antwerp really was a bargain.
In Van de Broek's accounts, the inspectors found some transactions "on behalf of L.D.," noting that "these cash books are by no means official. The sales to Degrelle were recorded as of 1944, while interrogations revealed that they had already taken place in 1942. Questioned about this, Van de Broek stated that he could not remember dates or years. 'It appears to us as if the cash books were created just now recently,' the investigators let on. They thought it desirable to have a thorough examination of the accounts. I found no trace of it in the file.
In November 1945, Van de Broek had to answer a third time to the inspectors. This had got hold of two Durchlass-Scheine (permits to travel) which gave Van de Broek free passage at the border. They had been issued by order of Léon Degrelle and the cargo consisted of "historical documents for his studies. Besides his political commitments, would Degrelle have had time to study? It explicitly stated why the assignment had been entrusted to Van de Broek: 'Mr. René Van de Broek is particularly well known to us and offers us every guarantee from the National Socialist point of view.'
Although it was written in black and white in the release notes, Van de Broek denied that he had undertaken the trips at Degrelle's behest. They had been "exclusively undertaken" for "my private business," he said.
The interrogators apparently were not alarmed, because no further questions followed.
Possibly, in the chaos after the war, the War Office had no idea that art had disappeared on a large scale. After a letter from Leo Van Puyvelde in early 1946, however, they could no longer ignore it. Van Puyvelde was chief curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels and had been appointed director general of the Service de la Protection du Patrimoine Culturel after the war. That worked to recover Belgian art. 'It comes to our attention,' he wrote, 'that M. Van den Broeck (sic) would have been intermediary of several sales of art taken from Jews during the occupation.' He concluded with: 'On l'accuse d'avoir été VNV'.
With that, the investigative carousel started up again. But how slowly it turned.
Only in the fall of 1946 did Van de Broek have to appear before the court-martial again - already for the fourth time. Van de Broek had no ties to the VNV, but to DeVlag. However, he declared that he had "never been a" member. When the substitute presented him with a document bearing his membership number 20,726, Van de Broek could only confirm that his signature was on it. Nevertheless, he continued to deny any involvement. 'I have no idea how and when this document was drawn up,' he said. The substitute did not insist; the minutes amounted to barely three-quarters of a page.
The following day, Van de Broek sent a series of additions. If he had been "a party member of the new order," he argued, he would not have "sacrificed so many finances to save the property of a fleeing Jew. By this he meant Samuel Hartveld.
According to Van de Broek, he had suggested several times to Adelin, Hartveld's son, to save the paintings and the library. But the latter had waited too long, whereupon a Verwalter had been appointed. Could it have gone like this? Adelin Hartveld was arrested in January 1941 as a resistance fighter and, after a year of imprisonment, was executed in January 1942. Heinrich Kunst had not been appointed Verwalter until March 1942. Had Van de Broek then started consulting with Adelin Hartveld in prison?
In his additions, Van de Broek mentioned another meeting with Samuel Hartveld. The latter had returned to Antwerp after the liberation in 1945 and had thanked Van de Broek with emotion because he had "found everything thanks to my intervention. Hartveld had even offered to become his successor in his business, 'which I accepted'. Van de Broek referred to a letter from Hartveld. This, according to him, was so crucial that I call it The Letter.
I found The Letter in the auditor's file. At the bottom was a signature of Hartveld. The Letter was remarkably lighthearted in tone. However, Hartveld must have felt much grief after the loss of his son. The Letter began "with a sense of sincere gratitude. By buying the gallery and stock, Van de Broek had saved Hartveld's property. In gratitude, he was allowed to continue the management of the gallery, and the terms of the lease were left to him.
Strange. Wouldn't a businessman want his property back as soon as possible? And wouldn't a homeowner decide the terms of a lease himself? If there was a transfer of ownership, wouldn't a businessman like Hartveld have it written down in a contract or legal document, and not in a flippant letter?
In late February 1947, Van de Broek was told that the investigation was ranked inconsequential. The inspectorate let go of the Hartveld case. But I didn't.
The paintings began their public life. I bumped into a first one when I was perusing the acquisition list in the archives of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. In it, I noticed the acquisition of the 'Portrait of Bishop Antonius Triest'. Was that the painting Hartveld had corresponded about with Rubens expert Burchard in 1938? I decided to request the object folder. One of the first documents about the purchase gave me an immediate shock. It was a letter from 'Gallery Otto Venius' from spring 1943. Under the logo was printed 'René Van de Broek' and 'Kunsthandel'. A few months after the takeover, Van de Broek had already made Gallery Hartveld his own with great swagger.
For Van de Broek, the temptation was apparently great to immediately monetise his newly acquired trading stock. Antonius Triest had been bishop of Ghent for 37 years and was popular with the people for his bread distributions and orphan care. If there would be interest in his portrait anywhere, it would be in Ghent. So Van de Broek wrote a letter with some rambling introductions to the Bijloke Museum in Ghent. A vague attribution as a 'school of van Dyck', as in Arthur De Heuvel's estimate, was suddenly out of the question. He offered the painting as a full-blooded work by Gerard Seghers. But in full wartime, the city had other cats to flog - Van de Broek had been too impatient.
Five years later, just before the summer of 1948, Van de Broek took another chance. He proposed to the Bijloke Museum to lend the portrait. Curator Henri Nowé was keen. When the loan ended six months later, the board was considering a possible purchase. Van de Broek wanted to drop his price from 60,000 to 50,000 francs. But that was his final offer, 'as he claims to have paid 60,000 francs for it himself'. So that meant Van de Broek was willing to sell at a 10,000-franc loss. The proposal was accepted.
Van de Broek was screwing the museum. He was really not so crazy as to sell the painting at a loss. By monetising one of the 66 paintings, Van de Broek could already recoup a good part of his purchase price of 200,000 francs. His earlier claim that 200,000 francs was a fair price for the stock of paintings had been a lie.
The 'Portrait of Bishop Antonius Triest' is still in Ghent, but has been transferred to the Museum of Fine Arts. The portrait with inventory number '1948-Z' is now considered a piece by Gaspar de Crayer. The collection catalogue lists 'S. Hartveld' and 'Van den Broeck' (sic).
I found another painting in the collection of Tate Britain in London. It is called 'Aeneas and his family fleeing burning Troy' and it depicts a scene from the epic Aeneid. In it, the Trojan hero Aeneas tries to rescue his family from the burning city. The painting was long considered an Italian work. That is also how it appears on the appraisal list Arthur De Heuvel made for Campo in 1942. He described the painting as 'Incendie de Troye. Enée et Anchyse' and situated it in the 17th-century Italian school.
The Tate Britain website is clear about the work's provenance. Hartveld bought the painting in the UK even before World War II and from him it went to 'René Van den Broeck' (sic).
In 1994, Tate purchased the work on the Belgian art market. The museum discovered that there was a signature on the central column and was able to decipher it as that of Henry Gibbs. Instead of an Italian work, it is now considered a British painting.
But what about The Letter, which Van de Broek said Hartveld had sent? That one kept raising questions. Thanks to correspondence with Burchard, I had read numerous letters from Hartveld and noticed that he often wrote long but smooth and elegant sentences. So why did The Letter have such a turgid tone and was so solemnly worded? Why would a businessman like Hartveld simply hand over his gallery and let the acquirer decide how much rent to pay?
I decided to submit The Letter to a writing expert. I found an independent, sworn writing expert who analyses the authenticity of documents for courts, among other things. I paid him for his services. My request was to submit The Letter with Hartveld's signature to a graphological examination. Together with the graphology expert, I visited the Beveren State Archives Department, where he subjected The Letter to a microscopic examination.
With the naked eye, I saw a plain sheet of paper. Under the microscope, that became a three-dimensional image that resembled a cornfield. Where the pen had made a signature, it looked like a tractor had made tracks through the field.
Furthermore, I provided the graphology expert with eight letters from Hartveld, both typed and written, and with a good spread between 1930 and 1942. I also provided him with the letter from René Van de Broek, in which he first tried to sell Triest's portrait to the museum in Ghent in 1943. The expert delivered an extensive written report of 27 pages, with numerous detailed microscope images.
In Hartveld's six typed letters, the expert saw the same pattern recurring over and over again. Hartveld did not like emptiness. He tapped his lines full to the far right edge of the page. Between his paragraphs, he left no interline. In comparison, the page layout of De Brief looked completely different. It did have interlines between the paragraphs. The lines never ran to the edge of the page - a right margin was kept neatly. For the handwriting expert, this was already the first thorough deviation.
Next, the expert compared Hartveld's signature on The Letter with that of eight other letters by Hartveld. In those eight letters, Hartveld's signature always rose significantly - in comparison, the signature of The Letter had a less rising gradient. In the eight letters, Hartveld always had the S of his first name tilted relatively sharply to the right. This was much less the case with De Brief. As soon as Hartveld finished his S, he always made a short, horizontal connection with the rest of his signature. The expert noted that this connecting line was atypically long in The Letter.
Signatures normally show variations. As the signer puts more or less pressure on his pen, the ink deposit and ink spread vary. As a result, sharp and pasty passages alternate. In Hartveld's eight letters, his signature had a lively and dynamic character, with numerous variations. The signature on The Letter did not have that at all. Under the microscope it was remarkably even. Without the slightest hesitation or faltering, there was one continuous consistent spread of ink. The signature on The Letter was sterile and clinical. The expert found this so striking that he spoke of "an immense graphic discrepancy" in his report.
Graphology experts who give advice in court express their opinions using a scale of values with nine degrees of probability. These range between 'with a probability bordering on authentic' and 'with a probability bordering on inauthentic'. The middle category means that no unequivocal conclusion is possible. But that was not the case with The Letter.
The writing expert's report ended with this conclusion: 'Signature to be examined on the document de dato 5.7.1945 is with high probability not the hand of Mr S. Hartveld.'