How did a Monet drawing stolen by Nazis end up in Louisiana? Now the FBI is involved.

Nola 24 April 2024
By Doug MacCash

The FBI has it in a vault for safe keeping

A misty, gray-blue drawing titled "Bord de Mer (Sea Side)" by Impressionist master Claude Monet now lies securely in a foam-lined container in a safe in the FBI's New Orleans field office. It's been there since June 2023, when the bureau began investigating who rightfully owns the artwork that apparently was once plundered by the Nazis.

Monet, who would become one of the most influential figures in all of European art, was just 25 years old in 1865 when he sketched the lonesome image of rocks and distant clouds he observed on the Normandy coast. Not a masterpiece perhaps, but the small artwork, rendered on paper in pastel crayons, would surely fetch a fortune in today's art marketplace.

But there's a problem. Before the FBI tucked it away, and before it landed for a time in the small Louisiana town of Sulphur, the painting passed through a murky tangle of war, Nazi looting, European galleries, and eventually a venerable art and antiques gallery in the French Quarter.

Now, the U.S. government is asking the courts to officially decide ownership and absolve the U.S. of liability for holding it in the meantime.

Whereabouts unknown?

According to a lawsuit filed on Monday in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, "Sea Side" was purchased by Adalbert and Hilda Parlagi in April 1936 and displayed in their home in Vienna.

Two years later, when Hitler annexed Austria into Germany, the Parlagis fled, leaving behind their belongings, which the Nazis soon claimed as their own.

In 1941, "Sea Side" was sold by a Viennese auction house to a private collector, with proceeds presumably going to the Nazis. After the war, the Parlagis appealed to the German and Austrian governments to retrieve the Monet, but were unsuccessful. Its whereabouts were apparently unknown thereafter.

But according to the federal lawsuit, the small Monet resurfaced in 2016 when it was loaned by a Paris art gallery to an exhibit of Impressionist art elsewhere in France. Soon after, the pastel drawing found its way across the Atlantic to New Orleans, having been sold to the renowned MS Rau Antiques gallery on Royal Street.

In 2019, Rau sold "Sea Side" to a Sulphur couple, Dr. Kevin Schlamp and Bridget Vita. They kept the artwork until 2023, when the FBI came calling, apparently to take custody of the artwork until the proper ownership could be determined. Schlamp, a Canadian-born physician with a family medicine practice, died on March 4.

The public sale of the artwork may have made the grandchildren of Adalbert and Hilda Parlagi aware that their family's long-lost treasure had survived the intervening 83 years. Naturally, they sought to get it back.

The Parlagi heirs are represented in the lawsuit by Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, an organization devoted to restoring stolen art to its original owners. As the organization's website states, one of its roles is to "negotiate policies and procedures with governments and cultural institutions."

In the lawsuit, which was brought by the U.S. government against Webber and the Parlagi heirs, federal lawyers ask the court to allow the FBI to keep the Monet until the court determines the rightful owner. There is no suggestion in the suit that the recent owners of the Monet knew it had been stolen.

Bill Rau, the owner of MS Rau gallery, predicts that the lawsuit will be settled without conflict. "All of the parties have reached an amicable agreement to happily return the pastel to its rightful heirs in light of the work's provenance, which was of course completely unknown to all of the trading parties," Rau wrote.

It's unclear how MS Rau and Vita will negotiate the loss of their monetary investment in the costly artwork.

According to a 2023 story on the Associated Press website, "By some estimates, the Nazis stole 650,000 works of art from 1933 to 1945, many from Jewish families who were arrested and then killed in concentration camps during the Holocaust." The discovery of these looted artworks is a continuous undercurrent in the art market and in museums across the world.

Vita and the federal assistant attorneys who brought the lawsuit did not immediately respond to email requests for comment. MS Rau declined to reveal the sale price of the Monet.
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