Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Doing the right thing
Categories: Art, Ethics, Utrinque Paratus

DAM set to return Nazi-looted painting

By Leigh E. Rich

A painting in the Denver Art Museum’s collection since 1961 has been confirmed recently as part of the assets of a Holocaust survivor, who was forced to sell it in a Nazi-collaborated art sale before WW II. The museum is in the process of returning the painting to its rightful heir, who’s known of its whereabouts for more than two decades.

“I haven’t quite come down to earth yet. It really hit me. I just had goosebumps and tears. I’m happy and sad at the same time—happy because the painting is coming back and sad because of the memories it (reconstitutes),” Marianne Rosson, the 79-year-old daughter of victims of the Holocaust now living in Beaverton, Ore., told the Intermountain Jewish News in a phone interview. The painting was once owned by her father, Paul Hartog, a banker in Berlin before the war.

“The Letter,” oil on canvas, is believed to be the work of a follower of 17th-century Dutch baroque painter, Gerard Terborch. Terborch was an interior genre artist, painting scenes of everyday life among the well-to-do middle-class in Holland.

“He specialized in these domestic scenes,” said deputy director of the museum Joan Carpenter Troccoli, PhD. “The painting itself is very nice. It’s a good size. I can imagine hanging it in a wealthy home. It’s not too big, but not too small. It has a slightly naive quality that’s part of its charm.”

As with many works of Terborch and his contemporaries, the colors tend to be subdued, reflecting the dark fashion of the time. But many art historians believe they also add to the richness of such domestic scenes. The Terborch school has been praised for its lively rendition of fabrics such as silk and taffeta. “The Letter” is painted in muted greens, browns and reds.

“It’s very elaborate for such a modest scene,” Christine Genovese, media relations spokeswoman for the museum, said.

“The Letter” was bequeathed to the Denver Art Museum in 1961 by one of its trustees, Robert Silbar, who bought it in a New York art gallery earlier that year. The painting’s history was not recognized at the time.

Hartog, who lived in Berlin, was forced to sell his assets—including his 31-piece art collection—at a Nazi-coerced sale in 1934 at the Graupe auction house. Rosson and her family have been trying to locate Hartog’s complete collection ever since.

“The auction house was in collaboration with the Nazis,” Troccoli stated. “The next question for us was whether that was a forced sale. Was he forced to sell those pictures? Was ‘The Letter’ sold for less than market value?”

The answers to both questions have been confirmed in the positive by researchers hired by Rosson and the Denver Art Museum. “Based on the family’s history and the fact that the sale brought in about a third of its value,” she added, “there’s little question in our mind that he was forced to sell it.”

Due to the recent emphasis on Holocaust restitution, virtually all American art museums research their collections for any pieces that might have been taken in a similar manner. Troccoli explained, “We were already looking for paintings in the era from 1933-1953. We have a policy for such cases that was originally suggested by both the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, urging every art museum to research its holdings.”

The museum’s staff searched the databases of several lost art registers, like the Lost Art Internet Database and the Art Loss Register, that house information about stolen or lost art, antiques and other valuables. “This picture had a history, but there weren’t any dates. And that was a little suspicious.

“We went to the Art Lost Register, which is one of the major databases for stolen or lost art,” though the painting was listed neither as lost nor stolen, Troccoli said.

Rosson’s nephew, who saw a copy of the painting in a Denver Art Museum catalog in the 1960s, contacted the museum inquiring about “The Letter.” “My nephew, who lived in Switzerland before he died, did most of the research about 25 years ago. We knew it was there, but we hadn’t put out any feelers,” Rosson said.

Troccoli explained, “We were contacted by e-mail last year and all it said was, ‘My family owns an album that has a photograph of your painting. This was something my grandfather lost in the ‘30s.’”

The family has several photographs of Hartog’s apartment in Berlin, depicting scenes of the interior. In the background, “The Letter” hangs on a wall.

“We got a letter just recently from the family’s representative. In that letter was the evidence that we were looking for, confirming the facts that Hartog was a victim of the Holocaust and that he was divested of all of his property, including the art,” Troccoli added.

Before the artwork is returned to Rosson, Denver’s museum has had to run the gamut of committees.

“Whenever we deaccession a piece, which means to take it out of the collection,” Troccoli elucidated, “we need to go through a process that has a lot of checkpoints. It’s obvious that this is a special case, but we still need to run it through the appropriate channels.”

The three committees include a museum staff-based acquisitions group of art experts and curators, a collections committee of some of the museum’s trustees, and a board of trustees meeting where members will take a final vote, scheduled for Nov. 1. Rosson could receive the painting before the end of the year.

“We’re confident the various boards will do the right thing,” said Ary Frenkiel, an attorney representing Rosson who specializes in Holocaust restitution claims in former East Germany. Frenkiel, the son of Holocaust survivors, graduated from Tel Aviv University in psychology and founded Frenkiel International, Inc., a real estate restitution company.

“I took on this particular case because I just like her,” he said. “We didn’t know what the outcome would be. We are extremely gratified with the museum’s response. It’s time that other museums and organizations start following this lead since thousands and thousands of paintings and other high-value personal property are still missing.”

W hen WW II broke out, Rosson, living in England at the time, was interned as an enemy alien, “which wasn’t very nice.,” she said. “I wasn’t very dangerous.” After her release in February, 1942, she joined the British army.

“I served in the British army for four years. I went to England in ’38. I joined the army in the April of ’42. During my last year with the British army, I worked with the British Occupying Forces in Berlin, where I was born.

“It was quite a feeling to come back to that city in an English uniform.”

Afterwards, she joined the US Army, which sent her back to Germany as an interpreter.

“I always wanted to go to America. My father’s sister married an American. The quota in those days would have taken three years. My parents didn’t want me to wait for three years. So, they sent me to England, and the only way I could get in was as an au pair.”

During her internment, both of her parents were imprisoned at Theresienstadt. They were able to write letters to each other, sending them via a prisoner of war mail route. Once she was free, they were no longer able to communicate. Rosson only received details from friends still in Germany.

Her father died at Theresienstadt in 1942, and her mother, transferred to Auschwitz, died two years later.

“My father and my mother were both married before. My mom had one son, and my dad had a daughter, who were both much older than me. My dad was 53 when I was born.

“By the time I was a teenager, my daddy was more like a grandfather. My mother was a gag. She had a wonderful sense of humor, which I think I inherited. She could make the best out of the worst situation.”

Rosson, the surviving child of the three, has one son, 53, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, all of whom live in Portland, Ore. During her lifetime, she worked for Stanford University’s medical center for 23 years.

“I was the complaint lady. All complaints, from patients, physicians and nurses, would be referred to me. I tried to make friend out of enemies. And now I feel it’s my turn (to complain),” she joked.

“I’m very busy. I’m ironing right now before visiting a grandchild. I like to iron.”

R osson believes the Holocaust restitution movement “is finally getting somewhere. It’s taken far too long,” though she says that, for German-based claims, it sometimes feels impossible.

“Hitler did a pillage of everything that was worth money,” Frenkiel said of WW II. “It was about greed. It was a war of money. The attitudes were, ‘I covet my neighbor’s stuff. I will exterminate to get it.’ And that’s what they did.”

Frenkiel, who has specialized in real estate claims since the Berlin Wall came down in 1990, added, “Nothing really happened (in terms of restitution) until the world became aware of this 10-15 years ago.”

Concerning “The Letter,” he said, “Basically the family is extremely gratified. Marianne Rosson will be 80 years old next year. She has never given up hope. She has been trying to get the painting back for the longest time.”

“The painting’s just been conserved,” Genovese said.

Troccoli added that “The Letter” is probably in better condition now than when Hartog owned it. “These (17th-century) pictures usually have a pretty heavy coat of varnish” that curators remove. “The Letter” was conserved a few years ago, and the museum believes this coincidence is an added touch to the return of the painting.

“I’m sure getting the painting back is going to be an emotional encounter,” stated Troccoli.

Rosson is overwhelmed and doesn’t know quite how she’ll react. “I am a funny person,” she said. “I don’t expect anything, When something comes, I am overwhelmed. I thought regaining possession of the painting was so far out, I didn’t believe it would happen. It woke me up. I am very happy to see it happen. The Denver Art Museum is very honorable.”

Rosson implores other museums to return Nazi-confiscated art. “I never thought I would be one of the fortunate ones.”

Frenkiel agreed. “I must mention the courageous act by the Denver Art Museum. This too needs to be told to pave the way for others to start doing the right thing.” 

Rich, L. E. (2000, September 22). Doing the right thing: DAM set to return Nazi-looted painting. Intermountain Jewish News.

Comments are closed.