Family Memoir

My Grandfather's War: Recovering the Art the Nazis Stole

Before WWII, Paul Rosenberg was one of Paris’s major art collectors. But after the Nazis invaded, his gallery was occupied and his collection stolen and dispersed.

10.05.14 9:45 AM ET

August 27, 1944, and the troops of the Second Armored Division under the command of General Leclerc had just liberated Paris. Members of the Resistance had alerted them that a train containing one final convoy of looted works of art was about to leave the capital for Germany. A detachment of six volunteers, led by Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg, planned to stop the train at Aulnay, in the suburbs of Paris. On board were some dazed, homeward- bound old German soldiers and 148 crates of modern art, a small percentage of which belonged to the father of the lieutenant in question. Alexandre had last seen their contents on his parents’—my grandparents—walls at their 21 rue La Boétie gallery in 1939.

That train, which was leaving for Germany, was the final act of the huge program of looting that the Nazis had pursued in France and in all the countries of occupied Europe. Two weeks after the armistice, Hitler, on the pretext of bringing these works to safety, issued an order that all art objects belonging to the Jews should be “protected.” “It is not an appropriation,” said the memo that had come from Berlin, with the cynicism of those who think that the bigger the lie, the more likely it is to be believed, “but a transfer under our guard, as a guarantee for the peace negotiations.”

The first of the raids had begun in the summer of 1940. It was then, as the art historian and résistant Rose Valland writes, that “the German Embassy became the Nazi ministry of culture in an occupied country.” It was not until October 30, 1940, that about 450 crates left the rue de Lille (where the Reich Embassy was located) for the Musée du Jeu de Paume, to be submitted to the meticulous and systematic classification process perfected by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).

On July 4, 1940, Otto Abetz, the Reich ambassador in Paris, sent the Gestapo a list of the leading Jewish collectors and dealers in the city: Rothschild, Rosenberg, Bernheim-Jeune, Seligmann, Alphonse Kann, etc. It was on that day that the house at 21 rue La Boétie was sequestrated, along with the works of art that Paul Rosenberg, my grandfather had left there, a library of over twelve hundred books, all the furnishings (from the antique furniture to the kitchen utensils), several hundred photographic prints, and the whole of the gallery archives dating back to 1906.

The objects looted included a number of sculptures, which had remained in Paris because they were difficult to transport, among them a large Aristide Maillol and the two famous Auguste Rodin statues Eve and The Bronze Age, which had adorned the foyer. The same fate awaited The Thinker, which was recovered after the war and which as a child I saw so many times, welcoming visitors, while I looked down from the top of the stairs to his gallery at Seventy-ninth Street in New York City.

The French police supplied the trucks; the Gestapo, the men. As for the paintings that came from the most important collections in Paris, these were stacked up at the German Embassy.

The route taken by the stolen art objects is now well documented: the German forces looted about thirty-eight thousand apartments. The German dealer Gustav Rochlitz acted as a clearinghouse, exchanging the art favored by the Nazis—old masters—for works that appealed to Pa- risian dealers with their more contemporary taste. From this immense act of larceny perpetrated in France by the Nazis, about two thousand works have been recovered and remain unrestored to their rightful owners. Stamped “MNR,” they belonged to families who had fled or been deported and will never return to claim them.

Including the paintings remaining at rue La Boétie, the 75 on the walls of the house the family rented in Floirac or rolled up in the garage there, and the 162 from the vault in Libourne Paul rented after the family decided to leave France, a total of 400 paintings were stolen from Paul. About 60 of them are still missing (are they in France, in Germany, in Russia?), most of which will probably never be found. The paintings that were recovered by Paul himself formed the inventory of the Seventy-ninth Street gallery, which has been almost entirely depleted since his death more than half a century ago.

Some of these works still show up from time to time, in estate sales or auctions. How I wish I could make them speak, so that they could tell the story of their odysseys, or rather of how they ended up tucked away in the apartments of families that never mentioned a word to anybody after fraudulently getting hold of them. In most cases the people who inherit them today know nothing of their provenance, which is buried along with the memory of those who appropriated them during those dark years.

In the course of my research into the recovery of artworks owned by my grandfather, I discovered an extensive document that I’d never heard of before, the name of which reminded me of the title of the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List. In contrast with the plot of that film about a righteous gentile who saved Jews from the Nazis, this is a collection of documents titled the Schenker Papers, which was declassified in 1995. Drawn up by the German Schenker transport company and reproduced on microfilm by the OSS, it lists the galleries and individuals that sold works of art to German museums, providing thirty-seven names. These include the dealers “who never declared sales made to the Germans, even though they had, to our knowledge, concluded numerous deals with the occupying forces—we have proof of it.” Among the names on this document were Martin Fabiani and Roger Dequoy, the latter being, as we have seen, employed by the Wildenstein family, as manager of its gallery during the occupation.

An exhibition organized in 2008 by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Direction des Musées de France, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, in collaboration with the Israel Museum in Je- rusalem, set out a clear account of suspicious purchases made by equally suspicious dealers: “Martin Fabiani”— compromised in all the documents and quoted in the context of that exhibition—“sold many paintings during the Occupation and was found guilty for this after the liberation.” My grandfather would describe Fabiani’s reaction after being shown pictures of various paintings he was trying to retrieve. Fabiani denied having possessed any of them, including the ones he himself had returned to my grandfather. “He probably hadn’t noticed,” my grandfather said ironically, “that all the paintings stolen by the Germans bore on the back of the frame the words ‘Paul Rosenberg—Bordeaux,’ followed by the initials PR and a number, a note appended by the Germans, and which would still have been there when he bought the paintings. And he handed over several canvases without asking for either proof or photographs!”6 In the end, Fabiani returned twenty-four artworks without a word of protest.

Regarding Paul Pétridès, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-two, the same 2008 exhibition said that he had been sentenced to three years in prison in 1979 but was freed at seventy-eight because of old age. His claims, after the liberation, that he knew nothing about this illegal trade and that like his colleagues, he had not knowingly bought a single canvas stolen from a Jew, left my grandfather cold: “It is not customary in the trade to buy canvases without first investigating their origins, and to be satisfied with the explanations of German intermediaries unknown to the Paris market.”

In the end my grandfather did not bring a case against either Pétridès or Fabiani. So why did he instead decide to pursue unscrupulous Swiss dealers, and why was he more lenient toward the French dealers when some of his paintings were recovered? Was it because he feared that political networks favored those dealers who had collaborated, as they did many civil servants who had been even more seriously compromised? Or because he suspected that the entire art market would be discredited if the public were told about dealers who had behaved badly? Or because he preferred to force them to return his prop- erty in his presence and to recover his paintings one by one, in a kind of Count of Monte Cristo–style personal vendetta?

Another paradox that makes me uneasy: my grandfather treated the petty thieves with even greater severity than he did the major crooks, suing them for fraud, abuse of trust, theft, or embezzlement. This was the case with M. Picard, the concierge at 21 rue La Boétie, who had worked there since 1931.

Picard had stolen some objects with the intention— he said in a 1945 statement he prepared for the trial—of safeguarding them before ultimately returning them to the Rosenberg family. “One day,” Picard testified, “I was instructed not to let anybody into the house that had been sequestrated by the Germans. On April 25, 1941, the Gestapo moved into the building and I had to give all the keys to the Germans. Two days later they moved out M. Rosenberg’s library. On May 2 they moved the furnishings into German cars and replaced them with office materials. On June 28, I was ordered to leave the premises. In the mean- time, I had managed to take various objects from the apartment and the Galerie Rosenberg with the intention of giving it back and only with a view to saving them. It was never my intention to take anything at all for myself.”

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The testimony of Marguerite Blanchot, the Rosenbergs’ housekeeper since the 1920s, is categorical about the building’s concierge. “I had the keys to number 21, and Monsieur Rosenberg had told me to move into his apartment. But M. Picard advised me against it and even added that it would be unwise to keep the keys. So I returned them to M. Picard and I came every day until November 1940 to wrap up the linen and the silverware with M. and Mme Picard. It was he who sealed the cases that we filled, and he refused to do it in my presence in spite of my requests. I went back to rue La Boétie several times, but the Picards refused to let me in. The concierge at 20 bis can testify to that. The day before the building was occupied by the Germans, I went to the apartment. When I wanted to get the furniture out, the concierges wouldn’t let me.”

René Duval, who worked at the office in the Galerie Rosenberg, testified that he too tried to save some of the belongings from rue La Boétie but that the Picards were opposed. “I never saw anyone taking anything, but I noticed a number of gaps among the paintings, some of which were hung on the walls at the homes of the concierges who told me they had only put them there to save them.”

Léa Roisneau had been Paul’s secretary since 1936. It was she who first alerted him to the looting. In March 1941 she sent my grandfather a letter, saying, “There’s nothing left, nothing, nothing, nothing.” Her former boss, three thousand miles away in New York, was unaware of so many things. He had no idea that the looting was orchestrated at the highest level of the Nazi hierarchy and that the raids were being carried out against “all the enemies of the Reich” in the occupied territories.

Roisneau also went several times to rue La Boétie, to try to rescue the objects that struck her as most important: the library and the photographs of the paintings. She too observed that the Picards not only took refuge behind the Germans but were further distinguished by their ill will. “One day he—Picard—told me that he wasn’t going to let me back into the building, and added that if the Jew Rosenberg came back, he would throw him out the door,” said Roisneau in the records.

In fact, Picard had stored objects everywhere: with neighbors, with his relatives. He had even taken Rodin’s Thinker to an expert, along with a big wood-and-bronze clock. Initially he said he had given my grandfather’s youngest brother, Edmond, everything that belonged to Paul; then he confessed that he had lied. Edmond began the inventory of looted objects after the liberation and before Paul returned to France. Mme Picard confirmed: “My husband didn’t tell the truth. And after the exodus, we took different things out of M. Rosenberg’s house and stored them at the furniture depository: bronzes, a marble bust, an inlaid side table. Also between 140 and 150 bottles of fine wine and champagne (we consumed about fifty of those bottles), and a portrait drawing of Mme Rosenberg.”

Pathetic, petty larcenies! Picard had his curtains cut from my grandfather’s tapestries and confessed that the Regency barometer mentioned by his wife was actually found in a furniture depository stored in his name. But was my grandfather really more appalled by this than he was by the crimes of the collaborationist art dealers?

The rest—the antique tables, the mahogany chests of drawers, the buffet tables, the chairs—was sold by Captain Sézille, the secretary-general of the IEQJ, to his own employees or used at the Palais Berlitz to furnish the notorious IEQJ exhibition The Jew and France.

“No case,” Lynn Nicholas writes, “illustrates these difficulties better than the decades-long struggle of Paul Rosenberg and his heirs, whose possessions reposed not only in France and Germany but also in the neutral country of Switzerland.”

Ironically, the most delicate battle of all was fought on Swiss soil.

In September 1945, Nicholas relates, Paul arrived in Zurich armed with lists as well as photographs of paintings that belonged to him. He went straight to the dealers, one after the other. “The dealer Theodor Fischer, in Lucerne, acquired numerous paintings belonging to Paul Rosenberg in Germany, and sold them to private individuals. Paul Rosenberg at last discovered this and launched an action against the Federal Tribunal of Switzerland. The claim was granted, and the defendants were condemned to restore to the plaintiff the paintings demanded from each of them.” It was then up to them to make their own claims against the Germans!

Paul’s complaints referenced thirty-seven paintings, twenty-two of which were in Fischer’s possession. It is easier for me to understand his determination in this case than it is to grasp the impulse that led him to bring suit against small-scale profiteers.

Paul discovered one of his paintings by Matisse, Woman in a Yellow Armchair, at the Neupert Gallery in Zurich, where he was even told it was from a private collection. Going higher up the chain, he went to see Emil Bührle, another dealer, “who was surprised to see me, because he had chosen to believe the rumor that I was dead,” as Paul told the story. Paul then accused him of knowingly buying stolen goods. Bührle replied that he would return them to Fischer if he got his money back. The two dealers tried to bargain with Paul: he could take back 80 percent of his paintings, leaving the rest. “But Rosenberg was on a crusade and wanted an official, government-to-government settlement,” believing that the Swiss government would be willing to negotiate at any price, in order to avoid a scandal.

If my grandfather had to wait for the liberation to find out the extent of the dispersal of his art, as early as 1942 he had been concerned about the fate of stolen paintings all across Europe. He saw it as an attack on the artistic legacy of the war-torn continent. Trying to motivate the Allies, he offered his assistance and cooperation to the profession as a whole, pro bono.

Paul was resolved to return to Paris, to hunt down his scattered collection since 1944, but the War Ministry had not yet authorized French citizens to come back to their country.

As soon as he was able to make contact with the painters closest to him, he asked them for certificates, as he did in this telegram to Matisse in November 1944: “Do you have pictures of last paintings I bought from you, because all taken by Boches [Germans] and resold.”

He also insisted, as he did with Braque and Picasso, that Matisse provide a statement that when he visited Floirac in May 1940, he saw one or the other of his own paintings on the walls, proof that Paul had not had sufficient time to sell them before his hasty departure.

It was up to the countries in which these acts of plunder had taken place to decide who rightfully owned the recovered works. In France, this task fell to the Commission de Récupération Artistique (CRA, the French Restitution Commission), which was set up in 1944 under the tutelage of Jacques Jaujard, the director of the National Museums of France under the occupation, and of the intrepid Rose Valland.

The CRA quickly returned the works recovered on the Aulnay train, and these were followed by others found at Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. As an expression of gratitude, Paul donated thirty-three of these paintings to major French museums, including the Louvre.

Even today there are works stamped “MNR” and found by the Allies but whose owners have never been identified. And I dare to say it: lying in the basements of prestigious French museums there are still unidentified paintings, whose owners disappeared into the camps and whose inheritors may one day be traced after a vetting of the archives. The museums make no secret of this. They are awaiting the return of those who will not come back.

All those battles waged in Paris (whether against big fish or small) or in Switzerland revitalized Paul after long years of waiting. They made him feel that he was achieving a measure of personal justice. At the same time he was gaining perspective. He was clearly aware that these battles were trivial compared with the catastrophe of the Shoah, the atrocities of which were just coming to light. In April 1945 he writes: “We recovered some paintings looted by the Germans, or by dishonest Frenchmen. But I am not going to complain, it’s as nothing when you look at the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on human beings of all races, creeds, and colors.”

Like the other dealers whose collections had been plundered, he applied for reparations from the Federal Republic of Germany, which in July 1957 passed a law providing financial restitution for losses caused by spoliation. Two years later, in 1959, the Germans proposed a settlement of less than half the sum Paul had claimed. He had died by then, and my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother, wearied by all the procedures involved, accepted their offer.

In 1970, and again in 1980, restitution was back on the agenda, and my mother and my aunt reclaimed paintings by Monet and Léger. Alexandre went so far as to buy back a Degas from its illicit owners. “I do not like so enriching the successors to thieves,” he said, as Lynn Nicholas records, “but have come to learn that the defense of one’s own and one’s family interests is somewhat like politics and indeed life itself. It is principally the art of the possible.”

My grandfather’s battle to recover his assets, which occupied the latter years of his life, was certainly legitimate, but I can see how it might have been perceived as unseemly by families whose relatives’ ashes are forever buried beneath the crematoriums at Auschwitz or even to those who survived the camps. My grandfather was safe, and so was his family. His son had come back a hero of the Second Armored Division, and he still had enough paintings to do business and live well.

Without wishing to play psychologist, I think he needed to make the thieves pay, to do his part in the work of remembrance and of bringing the truth to light. Perhaps he had adopted the phrase that the French Jesuit and scholar Michel de Certeau applied to his historical research, and that was quoted by Annette Wieviorka in the conclusion to her work for the Matteoli Commission, as his credo: “a burial of the dead, that they may return less sadly to their graves.”

Excerpted from ++My Grandfather's Gallery++ [http://www.amazon.com/My-Grandfathers-Gallery-Family-Memoir/dp/0374251622] by Anne Sinclair published September 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.  Copyright © 2012 by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle. Translation copyright © 2014 by Shaun Whiteside. All rights reserved.