Goudstikker collection “Reclaimed” from Nazis

Appeared in Jan. 2010 Glasstire

Jan ver der Heyden's "View of Nyenrode Castle on the Vecht" (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

In 1940, the influential Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, his wife Desi and their one-year-old son Edo fled the invading Nazis on a cargo ship bound for England. But within 48 hours of their escape, he died in a freak accident, falling through an open hatch on the ship’s deck and breaking his neck.

Fortunately, though it would take more than 60 years for his heirs to benefit, Goudstikker carried in his breast pocket a little black book detailing his inventory of more than 1,400 works, mostly paintings, by artists such as Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Steen, Vincent van Gogh and Titian.

Hermann Göring, the Nazi’s second-in-command and a rapacious art collector, showed up on the doorstep of the Goudstikker art gallery in Amsterdam just two weeks after the 42-year-old art dealer’s death. Göring orchestrated a forced sale of the Goudstikker inventory in what is now recognized as one of the largest art thefts from an individual perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.

In 2006, Marei von Saher, Edo’s widow, successfully concluded a 10-year legal battle with the Dutch government to reclaim 200 of Goudstikker’s paintings from the Dutch government – one of the first and largest claims to Nazi-looted art that has been resolved. Forty-six of the works can be seen in “Reclaimed; Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker” on view through Jan. 10, 2010, at the McNay Art Museum.

Floris van Schooten's "Still-Life with Cheeses, Candlestick and Smokers Accessories" (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

But the word “collection” is a misnomer, since the paintings represent the scattered fragments of one of Europe’s best and most influential galleries between the world wars. Goudstikker, whose grandfather Jacob established the family art dealing business as early as 1845, expanded the Dutch art market by featuring non-Dutch artists, ranging from the Italian Renaissance to 19th-century European art. He took shows abroad, and sold works to major museums around the world, including in the United States.

So “Reclaimed” is something of an Old World mash-up with works from the Renaissance, early German and Netherlandish paintings, Dutch art of the Golden Age, French and Italian rococo and 19th-century French and other European paintings.

One of the highlights is Salomon von Ruysdael’s “River Landscape with Ferry” (1649) that was acquired by the National Gallery of Art from the Goudstikker family.  However, the tranquil scene of a flatboat loaded with passengers crossing a placid Dutch river hung for many years in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum along with another masterpiece in the show, Jan Steen’s  “Sacrifice of Iphigenia” (1671), a tumultuous image of a boisterous mob taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” with the Greek king Agamemnon about to sacrifice his daughter.

Many of the Goudstikker paintings were displayed in several Dutch museums as part of the country’s National Collection, and their removal remains controversial. A Dutch deputy culture minister called the settlement a “bloodletting” for the country’s museums. More than 1,000 paintings are still missing, and Goudstikker paintings continue to show up at art fairs and in gallery and museum shows around the world.

During the war, Göring took about 800 of the most valuable artworks to Germany, and many were displayed in Karinhall, his country estate near Berlin. Göring kept about 300 artworks for his own collection, though many, including a small floral still-life by Hieronymus Galle that’s in the show, were destined for Hitler’s personal collection. Other assets were taken by a Göring associate, Alois Miedl, who continued to operate the gallery under the Goudstikker name, selling many works to Nazi politicians and German industrialists.

After the war in 1945, Allied forces recovered more than 200 artworks looted by Göring and returned them to the Dutch government, with the understanding that the works would be returned to their rightful owners.

However, when Desi returned to the Netherlands in 1946, she confronted a “restitution” regime in the postwar Dutch government that made it practically impossible for Jews to actually recover their property. Both Desi and Edo died in 1996. Von Saher, Edo’s widow, learned about the Goudstikker paintings from a Dutch journalist, Pieter de Hollander, who went on to write a book about the collection.

During the 1990s, there was a critical reexamination of claims of artworks looted during World War II, spurred by books such as Lynn H. Nicholas’s “The Rape of Europa” and Hector Feliciano’s “The Lost Museum.” But it was the U.S.-sponsored Washington Conference on Nazi Looted Assets in 1998  that opened the legal doors for Von Saher and her team of lawyers and art historians by forcing the Dutch government to change its restitution policy.

“It was 12 long years from the time I learned about the paintings until the case was settled, and it was all pretty terrible,” Von Saher said during the opening at the McNay. “The Nazis are gone, but this beautiful art remains.”

Goudstikker’s little black book containing his handwritten notations about his inventory proved to be the key piece of evidence. There’s a reproduction of the book in the show, along with a touch-screen display that allows you to call up images of some of the paintings he describes.

While the show is something of a mixed bag, most of the paintings are of outstanding quality. Renowned for his connoisseurship and scholarly catalogs, Goudstikker was a highly educated art historian and his collection reflected the international taste championed by the influential director of the Berlin museums, Wilhelm von Bode. Goudstikker was also an excellent showman and gave lavish parties at his country estate, Castle Nyenrode, depicted in a painting by Jan van der Heyden.

Though this exhibit is haunted by the specter of the Holocaust, it contains some spectacular biblical paintings, such as a stunning, multipaneled altarpiece depicting the Last Supper that’s attributed to the early 16th-th century Master of Pauw and Zas. Other religious paintings include Joachim Beuckelaer’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1564) and “Two Saints (St. Odilia and St. Cecilia)” (1503) by the Master of Frankfurt.

Lightning flashes across Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael’s  “Sailing Vessels in a Thunderstorm,” while Jan Josephsz van Goyen offers a somber view of the port of Dordrecht dominated by soaring gray clouds. The oddest painting in the show is Jan Jansz Mostaert’s “Discovery of America” with naked natives attacking armed European invaders in early 16th-century military armor, considered one of the earliest painted representations of the New World.

Pietro Antonio Rotari's "Young Woman with Bonnet and White Shawl" (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

But the most intimate pleasures of the show are provided by still-lifes, such as Gabriel Germain Joncherie’s eerie “Stuffed Birds,” and portraits, including an “Oriental” attributed to Tiepolo and a pair of young women by Pietro Antonio Rotari,  one of Empress Catherine II of Russia’s favorite painters.

San Antonio’s museums don’t have many Renaissance and early European paintings in their collections, so this show is a rare treat even without the added drama of the Goudstikker case. But it’s a real coup for the McNay to land a show that’s generated headlines around the world, and the Goudstikker collection is a chilling reminder of how swiftly the world can change and how long it can take to set things right again.

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