Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Matisse Looking for Owners

For Roni
This beautiful Matisse painting will soon be for sale. It has the most extraordinary and bizarre story going back to WWII, so here are a few words on the subject.

But let me start with my own recollection of nazi looting. People my age know that the Germans during WWII looted a lot of museums and private collections. Little as I was, I remember that the bells of all the churches from my native Belgium were taken to be melted and used for weaponry. When I was a child, people were too poor to have a watch: they usually got one for their retirement, and when people worked in the field, it was the sound of the bell that gave them the time. The loss of the bells was resented by all, but mostly by small children, because we believed that the bells travel to Rome and come back at Easter with eggs and gifts.
Some of our bells of course never came back from Germany. Belgium lost forever 3,358 bells to be precise. But some were found in Hamburg and came back for Easter 1947. These are the bells I remember. The whole country celebrated the return of our bells, and it did not matter what religion you had.
Belgium is a country of belfries. The city of Mechelen has a belfry dating back to the 13th century which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage. The city hosts an international school of carilloneurs.

During WWII, the Nazis stole art from all of occupied Europe and from their own Jewish countrymen in Germany. The saving of some paintings by the French resistance is illustrated by a still superb movie with Burt Lancaster: The Train
So, when a German citizen named Harry Fuld Jr. flew Germany in 1937, his belongings were confiscated by the Germans. He had a Matisse representing the hospital of Ajaccio in Corsica named the pink wall. The painting was discovered by the French in 1948 in Germany, hidden by the man responsible for delivering the poison to the gas chambers of Auschwitz death camp. Nobody knew who the real owner of the painting was, so it ended up in a museum in Paris.

Years passed, Harry Fuld died. But there were, all over the world people interested in the history of the looting, and families wanting their paintings back. Where do you find what belongs to you and how do you prove it belongs to you? It is almost impossible to win. But little by little the various French governments, with varying amounts of enthusiasm and perseverance, found the owners of about 60,000 works of art; 2,000 remained without an owner, about 10 percent belonging to Jewish families which have not been found. The rest is thought to have been taken in France and sold on the German black market. A catalogue of these lost paintings was published and an exhibit of about 50 paintings was shown in Israel and then in Paris from June to October 2008.
The Paris exhibit was at the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme. The name of the exhibit was appropriate: Looking for owners. It is not small stuff: there is Ingres, Degas, Monet, Delacroix, Vlaminck. One painting by the Flemish painter Pieter de Hooch (The Drinker) did belong to Edouard de Rothshild. It had been stolen and it was found back in the collection of Goring. Later, it was given back to Edouard's daughter and she offered it to the Louvre.

The owner of the lost Matisse was found after many years of research by German art historian Marina Blumberg. It so happens that the actual owner, through a series of wills, is a British charity involved with emergency medical needs in Israel. So, they intend to sell the painting and fund more work with the proceeds. The French Minister of cultural affairs, Christine Albanel, gave back the painting to the rightful owners on Nov 27th and said that this would bear testimony to a major work of remembrance and justice.

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