The Nazi collaborator who sheltered nearly 300 Van Gogh works during the war: Sam van Deventer’s story is now told

The Art Newspaper 25 April 2024
By Martin Bailey

A new biography reveals that the director of the Kröller-Müller Museum had earlier acquired eight Van Goghs for his personal collection—and he may have sold the finest one to Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring

Sam van Deventer and Helene Kröller-Müller (1909)

Sam van Deventer, the director of the Kröller-Müller Museum during the Second World War, was deeply involved in collaborating with the Nazis, according to a new biography. Ariëtte Dekker has uncovered a disturbing story in her book The Confidant: Sam van Deventer (1888-1972)

, published in Dutch this week by Prometheus.

In 1942, Van Deventer even hosted a family 50th birthday party for Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reich Commissioner for the German occupying forces in the Netherlands. Seyss-Inquart created a reign of terror and under his rule around 100,000 Dutch Jews were sent to their deaths. After the Second World War Seyss-Inquart was found guilty of war crimes and executed.

Van Deventer had served as the lifelong artistic soulmate and administrator to collector Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939). When they first met, in 1908, she was just starting to assemble what would turn out to be by far the greatest private collection of Van Gogh’s work, outside that of the artist’s family. Her paintings and drawings would eventually be left to the museum she created near Otterlo

, in a national park on heathland in the east of the Netherlands.

In 1908 Van Deventer was taken on by Helene’s husband, Anton Kröller, as a junior clerk in his business. From then onwards he would become closely involved with the couple, their trading and shipping company—and the art collection.

Although German-born Helene had married Anton in 1888, she has always been believed to have become Van Deventer’s lover. For two decades Van Deventer lived with the couple on the Kröller-Müllers’ estate just outside The Hague.

For writing the biography, Dekker gained access to a chest containing more than 3,000 letters from Helene to Van Deventer. Dekker believes it unlikely that a sexual relationship was actually consummated, since Van Deventer once wrote that Helene had convinced him of the superiority of platonic love, as opposed to the “animal spirit” of sex. Helene was also twenty years older than him.

Sam van Deventer, Helene Kröller-Müller and Anton Kröller (1920s)

Van Deventer soon became involved in helping Helene build up her Van Gogh collection, although initially he found the artist difficult to appreciate. In 1914 she wrote to him that the artist’s published letters were “like a true mirror of the human soul”. Van Deventer soon became an enthusiast and later went on to organise touring exhibitions of Helene’s Van Gogh works in Switzerland, Germany and Belgium (1927-28) and in America (1936-37).

In 1919 Helene had commissioned the Belgian architect Henry van de Velde to design a “grand museum” for her collection (which included many other late 19th- and early 20th-century artists), but a few years later the plan was aborted because of financial problems impacting on Anton’s business. A more modest museum finally opened near Otterlo in July 1938. Helene, with Van Deventer’s much-needed assistance, just managed to see her dream realised. She died in December 1939, aged 70, only a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Helene Kröller-Müller’s coffin among her Van Goghs in the Kröller-Müller Museum (15 December 1939)

What is deeply troubling about Van Deventer’s life is the role that he played following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940. As an assistant to the opportunistic Anton, he made every effort to be helpful to the Germans, who quickly promoted him as director of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Anton died in December 1941.

Sam van Deventer at the Kröller-Müller Museum (November 1940)

Although he never joined the Nazi party, Van Deventer would sign letters to the German authorities “Heil Hitler” and gave them Nazi salutes. He allowed the Germans to temporarily store art, including some looted from Jewish victims, in the museum’s air raid shelter.

Van Deventer arranged the sale of three of the museum’s German old masters, including Lucas Cranach’s Venus with Amor the Honey Thief (after 1537), for the personal collection of Hermann Göring, Hitler’s deputy. Van Deventer then spent part of the proceeds acquiring paintings by Camille Pissarro and Camille Corot which had been looted from Jewish owners and delivered by German art dealers.

What should be acknowledged, however, is that Van Deventer successfully safeguarded Helene’s important collection of modern art from war damage. The Van Goghs were safely stored in a specially constructed shelter, built beneath two metres of concrete and eight metres of sand. He was also successful in protecting the national park and its hunting lodge during the war.

On 20 April 1945, the Kröller-Müller Museum was liberated by Canadian troops. Two days earlier Van Deventer had been arrested and he would then spend 15 months in detention. Initial attempts were made to charge him for war crimes, but although this did not proceed, he was accused of collaboration. He was freed in July 1946 and in 1950 the case against him was adjourned. Meanwhile, in 1948 he had been formally dismissed as director of the museum, which had reopened in October 1945 under a new acting director, Willy Auping.

Although the Kröller-Müller Museum’s Van Gogh collection is now well known, what is often not appreciated is that Van Deventer had his own personal collection of works by the artist. The five paintings he owned had all been bought between 1915 and 1925, when prices were not so high. These were: The Ox Cart (July 1884, now Portland Art Museum), Recumbent Nude (early 1887, Kröller-Müller Museum), Basket of Oranges (March 1888, Goulandris collection, Greece), The Olive Trees (June 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Peasant Woman mowing (after Millet) (September 1889, private collection). He also had three Van Gogh drawings and a fake self-portrait.

Van Gogh’s The Olive Trees (June 1889)

By far the most important work was The Olive Trees

, now at MoMA. Van Deventer had bought this in 1925 from the estate of the distinguished German collector Karl Ernst Osthaus, paying 20,000 guilders (then around $8,000). He is believed to have sold it, on a voluntary basis, to a “German buyer” in 1940, for 100,000 guilders. This was recorded for the government’s Art Property Foundation after the war.

But who was the mysterious German buyer? Dekker believes that it is “likely to have been a senior Nazi official”, possibly even Göring himself (during the war he acquired twelve Van Goghs, many of them looted from Jewish victims).

The whereabouts of The Olive Trees during the war remains unknown, but by 1946 it was with two Swiss-based dealers, Margarete Schulthess and then Nathan Katz, both located in Basel. The noted American collector John Hay Whitney bought the painting in 1947 and his widow bequeathed it to MoMA in 1998.

As for Van Deventer, he lived a quiet life after the war, funded by gradually selling off his personal art collection. In 1966 he moved to Switzerland and bought the house of the deceased architect Van de Velde.

Van Gogh’s Recumbent Nude (early 1887)

Van Deventer died in 1972 and his ashes were buried next to the graves of Helene and Anton. He had retained only two of his Van Goghs at the end of his life: the painting Recumbent Nude and the drawing Woman with a Wheelbarrow (March 1883). In 2005 both were bequeathed by his son Rudi to the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame (Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and US ). He is a leading Van Gogh specialist and investigative reporter for The Art Newspaper. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was a co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain (27 March-11 August 2019).
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