Saturday, October 30, 2010

CJM: Reclaimed: Paintings from the collection of Jacques Goudstikker

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29–1682), Sailing Vessels in a Thunderstorm, mid- to late 17th century, oil on canvas.  Marei von Saher, the heir of Jacques Goudstikker.

The other marvelous show opening this week is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It's a tale of tragedy, greed and great injustice, redeemed by a family's courage and perseverance. It's a great story, but the ending is bitter-sweet for the principals never saw justice done, and indeed, the price of justice has been very high.

The paintings on view at the CJM are only a remnant of the collection Jacques Goudstikker once owned. Between WW I and WW II, Jacques Goudstikker was one of the most important art dealers of Old Master paintings. He had amassed an extraordinary collection, approximately 1400 works of art, mostly Dutch, Flemish and Italian old master paintings. Renowned for his connoisseurship and scholarly catalogs, Goudstikker was a highly educated art historian and his collection reflected the international taste of the time.

But when the Nazis invaded Holland, Goudstikker, a Jew and with a superb art collection, knew that he had to flee to survive. Like so many others, he left almost his possessions behind but kept with him a notebook, now known as the Blackbook, which contained an inventory of most of his collection. He, his wife and infant son were able to obtain passage on the SS Bodegraven. Tragically, only 48 hours later, he died on the ship, falling through an deck hatch and breaking his neck. His wife, Desi, and infant son Edo were eventually able to reach America.

Days after Goudstikker died, Goering appeared at the company's doorstep. Under threat of confiscation, he ultimately obtained the entire collection for two million guilders, a fraction of its value, in a sham transaction typical of the 'forced sales' engineered by the Nazis. The deal also included the life of Goudstikker's mother who had (for whatever reason), stayed behind. Art for a life. At least, this time, the Nazis didn't renege on their deal. The rest of the family was not so fortunate. At least eighteen (of the 26) members of the Goudstikker family died in the Holocaust.

Following the Nazis' surrender, Allied forces recovered the art treasures in Germany and transferred them to the Dutch government with the intention that they be returned to their rightful owners. Goudstikker's son and wife were still alive, but when they returned to the Netherlands to reclaim their stolen property, they were treated with callous hostility by the Dutch government. For sixty years, Dutch government kept the works in the national collection but never obtained legal title to them. How could they? They knew full well that the works were stolen.

 Master of the Mansi Magdalene (c. 1510–30), St. Mary Magdalene, oil on panel.  Marei von Saher, the heir of Jacques Goudstikker.

In a bitter seven-year legal struggle, between 1946 and 1952, Goudstikker's widow Desi tried to regain as much as she could of the family's looted property but was unsuccessful. Both Desi, Goudstikker's widow and Edo, his son, died in 1996 and never lived to see the return of their heritage.

The wrongs underlying the Goudstikker case were exposed between 1996 and 1998 by Dutch investigative journalist Pieter den Hollander, whose research brought to light how the interests of individual victims were often neglected in the post-war restitution of stolen art. The issue attracted major international attention. Because of this,  Edo's wife (now widow),  Marei von Saher, resurrected the claim. Using the Blackbook (the inventory of the collection as the basis for her claims), she and her lawyers battled in the Dutch courts until February 2006, when the Dutch government finally relented, agreeing to return 206 paintings. Estimates of more than £50 million were placed on the collection, but much of that will be needed to pay for the restitution costs.

Sixty years after the War's end, justice is finally done. With this decision behind her, Ms. von Saher (the son's widow) has indicated her intention to redouble her efforts to recover stolen Goudstikker artworks wherever they are found. Ms. von Saher adds: 'We hope that the restitution of this wonderful collection will lead governments, museums and other institutions throughout the world to act just as responsibly and promptly and return all Nazi-looted art in their possession.'

 'At long last, justice. A dream has come true for me and my daughters, Charlene and Chantal', Since the government rejected our initial application in 1998, we have waged our battle for justice, and we have finally achieved what sadly eluded my mother-in-law Desi directly after the War. Her mission to restore the legacy of Jacques Goudstikker and recover the property that had been taken from him became mine when she died in 1996. I wish my husband Edo could have been a part of this, but he passed away just five months after his mother. Still, I'm thrilled that Jacques Goudstikker's importance in the pre-War art world is again being acknowledged all over the world. Without the help of committed lawyers, art historians, government officials and friends, we could never have come this far. By uncovering the true Goudstikker story, they have restored to my family a pivotal part of its history.'

'It is a shame that so much time had to pass and so much cost and effort was required before a decision was made to return the paintings', said the Goudstikker lawyers, Prof. mr. Dick Schonis of Baker & McKenzie and Jhr. mr. Roelof van Holthe tot Echten of Oostwaard Lawyers, who have spent eight years fighting for restitution. 'But we're glad an historic error has been corrected and we hope that this important decision will be another step towards the restitution of other paintings belonging to the Goudstikker collection as well as the possessions of other Holocaust survivors and their heirs.' (PRN Newswire release, link below)

The decision in the Goudstikker case will have international repercussions, as extensive efforts are underway to reclaim other looted Goudstikker artwork. A number of Goudstikker artworks have already been restituted by governments, museums, private collections, dealers and auction houses in Austria, England, Germany, Israel and the United States. Some notable examples are a drawing by Edgar Degas, restituted by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and a still life by the Dutch female 17-th century master painter Rachel Ruysch, which was returned to the family by the Gemälde Galerie Dresden. Other artworks located include two of the most important works from the Goudstikker collection, 'Adam and Eve' by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, as well as a major landscape painting by David Teniers the Younger in the Wallraf - Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. Unfortunately, the Norton Simon museum is fighting the family's claim and the case is now pending in the US Supreme Court.

Anonymous, oil on canvas. 19th century. @ Marei von Saher, the heir of Jacques Goudstikker.

Marei von Saher and Jacques Goudstikker's granddaughter there to answer questions. To see the human face of this tragedy and their obvious emotion over sharing this story brought it all the more home. They recounted several stories of holocaust survivors, who had kept silent for all these years, now having the courage to speak out. They have even met other Holocaust survivors who were on the same ship with Jacques and Desi; one of them, an elderly women, gave the granddaughter a small Delft statue that she had carried with her from Holland when she fled as a child.

Seán Martinfield of The Sentinel, asked how the Dutch government, supposedly so liberal, could refuse to return works when their providence was so well known. How could any museum keep, knowingly keep work that they knew was stolen? The lawyer for the family said - in essence - they refused because they could get away with it. The Dutch, along with many other European governments, refused to return the spoils of war. It was only due to a series of court decisions in the late 90's, along with more Nazi documents coming into light, that opinion began to change.

In a time of rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia and nationalism - it's a story that needs to be told and retold to build a bulwark against the rising tide of ignorance, bigotry and hated.

Hatred is irrational. It is far too present and far too influential. When a gay man is murdered and his body left to hang on a barbed wire fence, there is hatred. When a mob stomps a woman down because she's supposedly a threat to a political candidate, there is hatred. When a member of any religion is labeled, denigrated, banned or silenced solely because of their religion or nationality, there is hatred. When black is told to get back or brown to get down, there is hatred.

 It's not only the Jews - whose possessions, whose lives, whose very bones, skin, teeth and hair - were stolen to fuel a psychotic regime who are at risk. We who remain silent in the face of hatred, we who forget the past - or deny it - are at risk of losing all that is important to us. The time to learn and stop the madness is now, before the thud of marching boots drowns out decency, before the howls of the mob create mindless fear, before the bodies lie, bloody and broken in the burning streets.

Lecture: Delayed Justice: Restitution of Looted Art - Tuesday, November 2, 2010, 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
A discussion of the complicated interplay of justice, art, and business as it relates to looted art during World War II and beyond with George McNeely, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Christie’s Auction House. McNeely also talks about the history of Christie’s, and how auction houses negotiate their complicated role in the drama of reclaimed art.

Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker" Through March 29, 2011
Contemporary Jewish Museum: 736 Mission Street (btwn. 3rd and 4th Streets), San Francisco, CA 94103
Thanks for Nina Sazevich for her help in providing information and correcting me on some of the dates!

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