Something extraordinary occurred recently in the long, ongoing battle to retrieve art looted from Jews by the Nazis. Several months ago, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Getty Museum became the first in North America to agree to return a painting to the heir of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch-Jewish art dealer whose substantial collection fell prey to the Nazis soon after they'd invaded Holland and Goudstikker had to flee for his life.
According to a piece by reporter Mike Boehm, which appeared on March 29, the museum's announcement, just two paragraphs long, stated that it had purchased "Landscape With Cottage and Figures," painted by Pieter Molijn around 1640, "in good faith" at an auction in 1972. The painting was never put on display, however, and the Getty has refused to say how much it paid for the work nearly 40 years ago.
According to Boehm's piece, "A far more prominent work housed in Southern California, the Norton Simon Museum's paired 'Adam and Eve' paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, remain a hotly disputed prize from Goudstikker's collection. Since 2007, the art dealer's daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, has been trying to reclaim it through a federal lawsuit."
Saher was quoted as saying that it's always "encouraging to see an important cultural institution like the Getty Museum decide to do the right thing for Holocaust victims and their heirs."
Goudstikker is one of 22 Jewish figures -- collectors and art dealers -- portrayed in an exquisite and heartbreaking recent book, published by the famed Vendome Press, titled Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice. Goudstikker, who was the subject of another recent book from Yale University Press, titled Reclaimed, is actually the last of the individuals profiled in this beautiful and informative new work, which includes many reproductions of the art these people bought, cherished and lost.
In addition to Goudstikker, authors Melissa Müller, the biographer of Anne Frank, and Monika Tatzkow have produced detailed biographies of such major figures of the 20th century art world as Karl Grünwald, Leon Bendel, Paul Westheim, and Alphonse Mayer and Louis Nathaniel von Rothschild, in addition to Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Alma Mahler-Werfel, and Eleonora and Francesco von Mendelssohn. Along with the reproductions of the art these people owned, a plethora of family photos are also included -- and that is where the heartbreaking part is underscored.
A number of the authors' subjects, unlike Goudstikker, lived for decades after the trauma of the Nazi period (some did die in concentration camps). But the family photos demonstrate one thing conclusively -- that the world these people built and lived in before 1933 was shattered, with little possibility of ever being reconstructed in its entirety, despite early efforts in the 1950s and '60s by survivors like Karl Grünwald, Dési Goudstikker (Jacques' widow) and Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers to track down what had been stolen. Often, these fruitless efforts at retrieval obsessed these unfortunate people for the rest of their days.
Müller and Tatzkow also show that for every victory of the Bloch-Bauer and Goudstikker heirs -- for every painting restored thanks to now famous legal battles over the last 15 years -- there is much resistance and obfuscation, by private collectors and museum administrators alike, over other items known to have been stolen. A final chapter by Gunnar Schnabel gives some historical and legal perspective on the matter of Nazi looted art and where the world stands after the first decade of the new millennium.
Goudstikker's tragic saga is a representational tale in this context -- even though it's questionable that anything can be called representational when you're discussing the greatest and most widespread act of theft perpetrated in the 20th century.
Jacques Goudstikker officially entered his family's art business in 1919, and worked to transform it throughout the next decade. Jacques continued his father Edward's practice of exhibiting art works for sale in various Dutch cities, but he also began taking these shows to America -- and not just to New York City, which would be understandable, but to Detroit and St. Louis as well.
And Jacques also varied the merchandise offered: Where his father favored Dutch paintings, his son added works from various centuries and different countries.
But during the 1930s, the mood in Europe began to sour, and Goudstikker's friends pleaded with him to save himself and his family. As it turned out, the art dealer, his wife and 1-year-old son just made it out of the country before the Nazis descended. In order to ensure their survival, Jacques had to leave his business and his many fabulous wares behind, all of which were swept up by the Nazis in a matter of weeks.
On a boat packed with fellow refugees, the Goudstikkers, who hadn't the proper paperwork, weren't permitted to disembark in Dover, England, and were forced to travel to Liverpool. That night, unable to sleep, Jacques went up on deck to get some fresh air. It was dark and he did not see an open hatch and fell to his death. His wife managed somehow to have him buried in Falmouth, England; then she and her child made it to Canada, and in time entered the United States.
Marei von Saher, the art dealer's courageous daughter-in-law, continues the fight to reclaim what rightfully belongs to her family. Two hundred of these works were returned by the Dutch government five years ago, after years of refusal and outright dismissal. Now the Getty has added another. There remains, of course, the very important Cranach matching pieces -- along with countless masterworks that rest who knows where.