The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently involved in a lawsuit involving allegations of clandestinely selling a Van Gogh masterpiece that was originally looted from Jewish owners fleeing the Nazis. These allegations are coupled with an alleged intent to orchestrate a cover-up that would extend over the course of a century. At the heart of this dispute is The Olive Picking, a Van Gogh with an estimated value of $70 million.
The Met first acquired the painting in 1956 from Brooke Astor. However, in 1972, the painting was covertly sold and subsequently disappeared from view. It resurfaced in 2019 in a catalog of a newly inaugurated gallery in Athens, Greece. The discovery opened the door for the descendents of the last collector, Hedwig Stern, who passed away in 1987, to piece together the puzzle of what had transpired over the decades.
Nine of Stern's heirs have initiated legal action against both the Met and the operators of the Greek museum, the Basil and Elis Goulandris Foundation. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Northern California, seeks the return of the painting, alleging that the Stern family has been victims of a prolonged campaign involving concealment and misinformation spanning several decades. The Met is contesting the lawsuit, asserting it had no knowledge of the work's looted history during World War II.
"The Olive Picking," a Van Gogh painting created in 1889 just before the artist's death, was originally purchased by Hedwig Stern in 1935 from the Heinrich Thannhauser Gallery in Munich, Germany. It was a valuable addition to her collection of Impressionist artworks. However, when Stern, her husband, and their six children attempted to escape the escalating Nazi persecution in 1936, the Gestapo prevented them from taking "The Olive Picking." In response, Stern instructed her attorney to sell the artwork, along with a Renoir, through the same gallery. The Nazis, in turn, confiscated 55,000 Reichsmarks, while Stern and her family found refuge in Berkeley, California.
Hedwig Stern (left) and her husband, Fritz (right), bought the Van Gogh in 1935, the year this picture was taken when they vacationed in Locarno, Switzerland.
In 1948, Justin Thannhauser, son of the gallery owner in Munich, brought the painting to New York and sold it to Vincent Astor. Vincent Astor, the son of financier John Jacob Astor IV, who tragically perished in the Titanic disaster, married socialite Brooke Russell in 1953. It was Brooke Astor who, in 1955, engaged Manhattan gallery Knoedler & Co. to facilitate the sale of the Van Gogh painting to a museum, as indicated in court documents.
At the core of the dispute is the role of Theodore Rousseau, a former member of the "Monuments Men" which was an elite unit tasked with tracing and recovering Nazi-looted art as Allied forces dismantled Hitler's regime. He was the curator of the Met who approved the purchase of the Van Gogh for $125,000, despite Knoedler $ Co. being on the state department's "red flag" list of dealers in looted Jewish art. The Olive Picking also appeared on a separate list of looted artworks due to Stern's post-war efforts to recover the painting, which involved discussions with U.S. officials in Munich and Washington, albeit without success.
As a member of the "Monuments Men," Rousseau was intimately familiar with the world of looted art. Serving as a U.S. Navy officer, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, dedicated to investigating Nazi art theft until 1946. The Stern family contends that Rousseau was an esteemed expert on looted art during this period.
The Stern family alleges that Rousseau worked around State Department rules that should have raised alarms within museums regarding the purchase of artworks with a potentially dubious history. Subsequently, in 1972, the family claims that Rousseau arranged a discreet sale of The Olive Picking through the Marlborough Galleries for an undisclosed sum, which the Met has acknowledged to be over $75,000.
This sale was kept confidential for several months and was later criticized as "a breach of public trust" by the Art Dealers Association of America, as reported by The New York Times at the time. The Met stated that the painting was of lesser significance and had been sold to fund the acquisition of a $5.5 million Velazquez painting. However, the Stern family disputes this explanation, asserting that the Velazquez painting was purchased in 1971 with funding from, among others, Brooke Astor.
A similar Van Gogh artwork titled Wooden Huts Among Olive Trees and Cypresses sold at auction in 2021 for more than $71 million, further emphasizing the significance of Van Gogh's work in the art market.
The Metropolitan Museum, in its response, stated that "during the Met's ownership of the painting," there was no documented record indicating that the artwork had any association with the Stern family. Furthermore, the museum added, "that information did not become available until several decades after the painting had left the museum's collection." The situation is further complicated by a decision to seal Theodore Rousseau's archives at the Met until 2073. The Stern family contends that this secrecy perpetuates the museum's concealment of the truth about the Van Gogh painting for decades to come.
This ongoing legal battle serves as a reminder of the importance of restitution and the imperative for institutions to be transparent and accountable in their actions.
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