Home News Amsterdam museum to return Matisse works forced to sell during WWII

Amsterdam museum to return Matisse works forced to sell during WWII

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Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum says it will return a Henri Matisse painting it has owned since 1941 to the heirs of its former owner, a German-Jewish textile manufacturer and arts patron who sold it to help finance his family’s escape from Nazi occupation in the Netherlands.

The museum announced the return of Las Meninas on Tuesday after Amsterdam City Council received a “binding recommendation” from the Netherlands Restitution Commission, a government committee that adjudicates cases involving Nazi-looted art.

In a statement, the heirs said the decision was symbolic justice. “Matisse’s work made the same journey from Berlin to Amsterdam that our grandparents made. But it came to a halt at the Stedelijk Museum, with almost no acknowledgement of where it came from for 80 years,” they said.

Before World War II, Matisse’s Las Meninas (1920-21) was part of the private art collection of Albert and Marie Stern. Albert and his twin brother Siegbert helped to establish a leading Berlin women’s clothing company in the 19th century. Albert and Marie were patrons of the arts and often hosted art and music events at their home in Berlin. Marie had studied art and her collection also included works by Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

The Stern family suffered repeated attacks of anti-Semitism after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. The government seized their business, took many of their assets and possessions, and the family was threatened with violence, said Anne Weber, founder and co-chair of the European Committee for Stolen Art, which handles the restitution of art.

According to the committee, the couple moved to Amsterdam in 1937 with their few belongings, while applying unsuccessfully for visas to Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. By July 1941, the family was running low on food, and they sold everything they had left in hopes of fleeing Europe.

The Matisse painting was sold to the Stedelijk Museum through a family friend in 1941. Soon after, the Stern family was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where Albert’s twin brother, the Sterns’ two adult sons, and many other family members were killed.

The couple’s grandchildren, aged 5 and 16 months, were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic but survived, according to the commission. Marie, who was sent to the Liebenau concentration camp in Germany, also survived the war, but Albert was killed at the Laufenburg concentration camp.

“They were under relentless pressure from the Nazis,” Weber said in an interview. “The imminent threat to their lives was very powerful.”

“They were threatened physically for months,” she added. “We did a lot of research and found a ton of documents in 26 different archives that told this story.”

Toon van Mierlo, chairman of the compensation committee, said the evidence for a forced sale in this case was very strong.

“Albert Stern lived in very bad conditions in Amsterdam after he fled Germany,” he said. “He did his best to keep his family safe, but he was unable to do so and he died at the end of the war.”

Regarding the return of the Matisse work, Van Mierlo said: “My feeling is that justice has been done.”

Matisse’s Las Meninas hangs in the museum’s permanent collection exhibition alongside other paintings of odalisques (or reclining nudes) by Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky from the same period.

“We don’t have many Matisses, so this is an important piece,” said Stedelijk Museum director René Wolfers, “and it shows how important Orientalism was in French painting.”

He declined to estimate the work’s monetary value, but said the work’s personal history outweighed financial considerations.

“It’s very important that we can restore these works,” Wolfers said. “It doesn’t make up for what happened during the war, but at least after all these years, justice can be done.”

A spokesman for the Stedelijk Museum said the city of Amsterdam, the official owner of the Matisse work, expects to hand over the work to Stern’s family by the end of the year.

“Returning artworks like ‘Las Meninas’ will mean a lot to the victims and help them understand the injustice they suffered,” Touria Meliani, Amsterdam’s city councillor for culture, said in a statement. “As a city, we have a responsibility and an obligation.”

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