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Denver Art Museum

An institution of conscience

By Leigh E. Rich

The Denver Art Museum, in a small but significant way, is making amends for the crimes of the Nazis before and during WW II.

The museum’s staff and board of trustees are in the process of routing through various committees the return of a painting in its collection to the daughter of a Holocaust victim, who was coerced to sell it in a Nazi art sale for less than half of its value. The board will take a final vote in Wednesday, Nov. 1. Some staff members believe the vote is a formality, part of the procedure the museum must undergo before it relinquishes any piece from its collection.

The museum is doing the right thing—the only moral and ethical action it can take now that “The Letter,” painted by a follower of Dutch artist Gerard Terbörch in the 17th century, is confirmed to have been part of the 31-piece art collection of German Jew Paul Hartog, who lost possession of the piece at the Galerie Paul Graupe in Berlin in 1934. It will likely be returned to Marianne Rosson, Hartog’s only surviving child, later this year.

The right thing, of course, is rarely without encumbrance. While museum officials will not release the estimated current value of the painting, its return surely is a loss to the museum.

The Denver Art Museum is one of the leading art institutions in making good on the loss of such pieces to Holocaust victims and their families. In June of this year, the North Carolina Museum of Art decided to compensate the rightful heirs of “Madonna and Child in a Landscape,” a painting in the museum’s collection since 1984, which had also been seized by the Nazis.

This painting was sent to New York for valuation and attribution in February. New York Gov. George E. Pataki was involved with the New York State Banking Dept. on the piece’s settlement. Pataki was quoted as saying, “This unique settlement marks the first time that a Holocaust-era loss has been settled in the United States without the need for litigation.”

We salute the Denver Art Museum for its actions, which apparently will constitute the second time that the honorable thing will be done voluntarily.

While almost every art museum in America has a policy to research its collections for Nazi-seized pieces—a dictum urged by the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors in New York (and, plain and simple, an a prior issue of ethics)—few have made such reparations.

Pataki said it best that these paintings “remind us that the horror of the Holocaust is still very much with us today.”

The Holocaust will never be over, as such material objects remind us. Nor should it ever be forgotton, lest humanity re-encounter these atrocities again.

“The Letter” and “Madonna and Child in a Landscape” are more than mere wall decorations. More than just financial investments. They are the remnants of lives brutally murdered—sometimes the only connection that heirs have with lost but not forgotten family members.

And now, they are symbols of professionals who are very distant from the Holocaust but are heeding its lessons.  

Rich, L. E. (2000, September 22). Denver Art Museum, an institution of conscience. Intermountain Jewish News.

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