LONDON — The Rosenberg family’s decades-long effort to recover hundreds of works of art stolen from them by the Nazis in 1940 reads like a movie script. In fact, elements of it were indeed turned into a 1960s film, “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield.
But, for the Rosenbergs, there is — as yet — no Hollywood-style ending in their search for justice and restitution. Instead, they are now embroiled in a bitter and frustrating tug of war, started over three decades ago, to recover a Degas pastel which they rightfully own.
The plot involves a German art dealer who stands accused of knowingly peddling a looted Nazi painting, allegations of ransom demands by a mysterious Swiss collector, and secretive attempts to sell the pastel which have spanned the globe.
The story begins in June 1940 in the town of Floirac, close to Bordeaux in southwest France, where Paul Rosenberg, a prominent Paris dealer in modern art who represented, among others, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse, had rented a home.
With the Nazis’ relentless advance and the fall of France imminent, however, Rosenberg was soon forced to flee his homeland. Alongside his wife, Marguerite, and daughter, the dealer made first for Lisbon in Portugal and then to safety in New York. The couple’s son, Alexandre, fled to Britain where he answered General de Gaulle’s call for his fellow countrymen and women to resist the German occupation and joined the Free French Forces.
Rosenberg had moved several pieces of artwork from Paris to his summer rental in Floirac. Among what he was now forced to abandon, was an 1890 pastel by the French artist Edgar Degas. “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” was one of Rosenberg’s favorite pieces of art, originally hanging above his desk in his Paris gallery on the Rue de La Boétie.
On the orders of the German ambassador to France, Heinrich Otto Abetz, much of Rosenberg’s professional dealership and personal collection — some 400 items in all, including the Degas pastel — was seized. “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” was taken first to the German Embassy in Paris. Alongside Rosenberg’s other art, it then fell into the hands of the notorious war criminal Alfred Rosenberg, head of the art-looting Nazi task force Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, who had the painting transferred to the Jeu de Paume, the Paris gallery where the Germans hoarded the huge stash of art they had plundered from French Jews.
According to a detailed confidential claim document prepared for Paul Rosenberg’s heirs, “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” was subsequently traded by the Nazis for another picture. In 1942, it is believed to have been sold to a Swiss family, then living in Ascona on the shore of Lake Maggiore.
Whatever the movements of the portrait after June 1940, one thing is clear: “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” was unlawfully taken from Paul Rosenberg and has never been recovered or sold by the family. Instead, in 1944, 1947 and 1958 the Rosenbergs filed separate postwar declarations stating that it was missing. They have also registered it on many contemporary forums for lost art.
From iron tracks to the silver screen
The Rosenbergs’ effort to recover their lost art received a surprise boost early on, shortly after the Allies commenced their liberation of France in the summer of 1944.
Under the command of now-Lieutenant Alexandre Rosenberg, Free French Forces dynamited railway tracks north of Paris. On opening the boxcar doors of one German train they had stopped, Rosenberg was confronted with paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Braque and Cézanne — many of which were familiar from his father’s home and gallery — which the Nazis were attempting to smuggle out of the country. The discovery inspired the 1964 film.
Even after the death of Paul Rosenberg in 1959, his family has continued their relentless search to recover what was looted from them nearly eight decades ago.
Those efforts continue to meet with success. With the help of Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International, a London-based agency which seeks to help Jewish families reclaim stolen art, in 2014 Norway’s Henie Onstad Art Centre returned Matisse’s “Woman in a Blue Dress in front of a Fireplace.” The Oslo gallery had acquired Rosenberg’s painting in good faith.
The following year, Marinello assisted with the recovery of another Matisse, “Portrait of a Seated Woman,” one of more than 1,000 artworks discovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer.
But “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” — one of approximately 65 pieces of stolen art the Rosenbergs have been unable to recover — continues to elude the family. The trail, though, is not entirely cold, and key to unlocking the mystery of its whereabouts may be a Hamburg-based art dealer, Mathias Hans.
Different times, different art trade practices
According to Hans, who answered questions put to him by The Times of Israel and has also posted a statement on his gallery website, he brokered the sale of the pastel in 1974 to the current possessor, a well-known Swiss collector.
“In 1974,” he said, “there was no focus on the [subject] of ‘Nazi stolen art.’ I did not know [anything] about that and because I had the last provenances there was no reason for further checks. In retrospect, it seems to be unbelievable, but I want to emphasize that these were [different] times, [there was] no internet, and I was young and I [had] just started as an art dealer.”
Indeed, suggested Hans, it was precisely because he knew that the painting was from Paul Rosenberg’s gallery and that Rosenberg was “a famous art dealer in Paris” that it “seem[ed] to be a very good provenance.”
Marinello, however, charges that Hans knew the pastel had been acquired in 1942 and was thus “a suspicious painting” and faults him for failing to ask the right questions.
“What kind of a provenance is ‘Nazi-occupied Paris, 1942?’ Hans knew, or should have known, that he was handling stolen property in 1974. Art dealers are held to a higher standard of due diligence and this provenance is suspect at any level,” argued Marinello.
In his website statement, Hans says that, at that time, neither he nor the buyer knew the item was stolen.
In the late 1980s, the Swiss collector returned to Hans, asking that he facilitate a new sale. Hans placed an advertisement — with an image of the portrait — in an international art magazine, noting that it had once belonged to the Paul Rosenberg Collection in Paris. Again, he insists, he neither knew nor suspected that the artwork was stolen.
The advertisement was spotted by Rosenberg’s daughter-in-law, Elaine. She and Hans had what was, by all accounts, a difficult phone conversation. She explained that the portrait had been stolen from her family and should be returned. He maintained that, as he was not the “owner” he could not do so.
According to his website statement, however, Hans relayed to Elaine Rosenberg an offer from his Swiss client to sell the family the pastel for the price they had paid for it — 3.5m Swiss francs ($3.5m) — in 1974. He claims that Elaine Rosenberg was uninterested in any conversation, branded him a “Nazi pig,” and called the police, who, he says, cleared him of any wrongdoing. Hans also says his Swiss client decided to withdraw the portrait from sale.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Paul Rosenberg’s granddaughter, Marianne — a New York-based art dealer — told The Times of Israel. “The picture appeared suddenly out of the blue in an art magazine. When Mr. Hans was contacted since he was advertising the sale of the painting … [he] was immediately non-cooperative.
“There was no dismay at peddling a looted work of art and it then just disappeared as quickly as it had appeared,” she said.
Glimmers and glimpses of Degas
But the effort to sell the portrait does not appear to have ended in 1974. Instead, Marinello claims to have uncovered a renewed attempt by Hans, commencing in 2003, to sell the portrait, using intermediaries in Denmark, Germany, California, New York and Venice.
In 2003, Robert Morgan, an artist living in Venice, was visited by a long-time friend who brought with him a full-size, framed, color reproduction of the pastel. Christian von Bentheim, a German entrepreneur, had been asked by Hans for his help in finding a possible buyer.
Von Bentheim, Morgan recalled, “is not an art dealer. He simply asked my advice in the belief that it was my field.” Not a dealer himself, Morgan in turn contacted a friend at Canada’s National Gallery who provided information that identified the work as part of the Rosenberg collection looted by the Nazis in 1942. Morgan relayed the information to von Bentheim who immediately returned the copy to Hans.
“He, and I, by extension, felt that Mr. Hans had taken advantage of us,” said Morgan.
Fifteen years later, thanks to a chance meeting at a social occasion, Morgan learned of Marinello’s work trying to locate the work, and recounted his experience in 2003.
“My sympathies lie completely with Degas’s posterity and the rightful owners,” said Morgan.
Von Bentheim did not respond to a request from The Times of Israel for comment. There is no suggestion that he knew the work was stolen.
Marinello alleges that von Bentheim told him that he saw the portrait in Hans’s storage facility sometime around 2003-4 in Basel, Switzerland. Hans confirmed that “the original was in a storage facility in Switzerland.”
There also appears to have been an attempt in 2007 to engage a Danish lawyer and dealer in the effort to find a buyer, with the Wildenstein Gallery in New York contacted about a possible sale.
Marinello is scathing in his assessment of Hans’s alleged actions.
“What it comes down to is this,” he said. “The man knew he had a Nazi-looted painting on his hands and he’s trying to unload it. He’s trying to stick somebody with it. He earned a commission on a Nazi-looted painting in 1974 and he’s trying to earn money on a Nazi-looted painting in 2003.”
In his website statement, Hans is adamant, however, that he advised his client in 2003 that while a sale could legally be made it was “difficult and questionable” due to the restitution claim, and that this fact would have to be made clear to any potential buyer.
Moreover, he told The Times of Israel, “except [for] the phone call in 1989 with Elaine Rosenberg, [when] she claimed that the painting was stolen, there [was] never an inquiry or a further claim until 2016 — neither written nor verbal.”
At the request of the Rosenbergs, Marinello himself made contact with Hans in 2016. His efforts at what he terms “quiet diplomacy,” however, have now faltered.
Requests for ‘ransom’?
Hans has repeated his client’s offer to sell the portrait to the family for the price he paid in 1974. Marinello told Hans bluntly: “That’s a ransom demand and we’re not going to pay it.”
At the side of Hans’s desk as they spoke in his Hamburg gallery was a framed reproduction of the pastel which, Marinello claimed, the German art dealer had used to “shop it around.” Hans denied that the copy served that purpose.
Marianne Rosenberg is similarly adamant. “What he’s asking for is for a repurchase of the painting — but we own the painting,” she argued. “It is our property, so I can’t buy back something that I own. We didn’t do anything inappropriate. It was looted from us by the Nazis.”
She agreed that if the Swiss collector bought the portrait in good faith, they should be compensated by the intermediary or the seller, “but it sure as hell should not be us.”
Hans described talk of “ransom demands” as “nonsense.” The owner of the painting, he claimed, had offered a “fair solution” with the 1974 purchase price being worth a much lower value some 40 years later. His client had also offered to exchange the pastel for another painting.
“The owner of the painting is not a criminal,” Hans insisted. “He feels very sad about the history of the painting and he was willing to find a compromise.” He was, however, not willing to give the pastel “back” without any compensation. “This is not acceptable for the owner of the painting,” he argued.
Marinello believes that Hans is fundamentally “conflicted” and needs to step out of the picture and allow a lawyer to represent his client. “If the painting is restituted, he will be on the hook for the purchase price and will lose,” Marinello argued. “By his actions, Hans is setting back restitution efforts and cementing his own legacy as an art dealer hiding Nazi-looted artwork from Jewish families.”
Hans said there was “absolutely no legal basis” for Marinello’s claims, and that it was part of an effort to “discredit” him.
German law is reportedly not sympathetic to the Rosenbergs’ claims, requiring that theft claims need to be made within 30 years.
However, Marinello believes the German government has not done nearly enough to help resolve the matter. Attempts to persuade the Ministry of Culture and Media to intervene have instead met a brick wall.
Correspondence seen by The Times of Israel suggests that while senior officials in the ministry offered to convene a meeting between the Rosenbergs and Hans, they also emphasized the need for “both sides” to “reach an understanding and find a compromise.”
The ministry’s response, argued Marinello, “was a half-hearted effort at best. There is so much more the German authorities could investigate here including purchase, tax and export records. Germany is not only responsible for the actions of their predecessors in 1940, but responsible for the standards it projects to the market today. When the government doesn’t lead by example, it gives the art market an excuse to do the bare minimum in halting the trade in looted artwork.”
In a statement to The Times of Israel, the ministry said it had made a “strong effort” to mediate in this case. It argued that it did not have the legal powers Marinello had suggested but noted that, under the new 2016 Cultural Property Protection Act, increased responsibilities have been placed on art dealers with regard to items which had been, or were suspected of having been, taken during the Nazi years. Those regulations, however, only apply to art being put on the market after the act came in in August 2016.
But, pointing to a conference Germany will hold later this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, Marinello argued that its government’s “inaction and inability” to intercede in the Rosenbergs’ case suggested a greater interest in “public perception… than in confronting and rectifying the actions of their Nazi predecessors.”
Does The Times of Israel give you valuable insight into Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.