Home Arts MFA Boston settles ownership dispute with heirs of Jewish merchants over painting Hitler wanted for his Führermuseum

MFA Boston settles ownership dispute with heirs of Jewish merchants over painting Hitler wanted for his Führermuseum

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The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston unveiled the painting Customers conversing in a tavern (1671) by the Dutch Golden Age painter Adriaen van Ostade – which had once been acquired by associates of Adolf Hitler during World War II – after reaching an agreement with the descendants of the painting’s former owners and a couple who bought the painting in 1992.

The panel, which shows two groups of people smoking and drinking in a tavern alongside a dog and chickens, was installed in the Dutch and Flemish galleries at MFA Boston alongside other works by Van Ostade and his student. Cornelis Bega from the museum collection.

Customers conversing in a tavern is one of 28 Dutch and Flemish paintings pledged to the museum in 2017 by collectors Susan and Matthew Weatherbie, who purchased the painting in 1992. The Weatherbies were unaware of the painting’s World War II history at the time of the sale. The Weatherbies and the museum will pay the heirs of two Jewish art dealers who jointly filed a claim over the painting, according to the The Boston Globe. The deal will see the Weatherbies retain ownership of the artwork they pledged to the museum in 2017.

“We are pleased that these long-standing ownership issues have been amicably resolved, and we are pleased to post Customers conversing in a tavern to the MFA so it can be shared with the public,” the Weatherbies said in a statement.

The Weatherbies first learned of the painting’s history six years ago, after Victoria Reed, senior curator of provenance at the museum, discovered its inclusion in the German Lost Art Foundation’s database during research into the couple’s historic gift to the museum, according to the World.

In 1937, the Van Ostade panel was part of the collection of Paul Graupe et Cie., a Parisian gallery run by Jewish art dealer Paul Graupe. Graupe fled Paris for Switzerland in 1939 before eventually moving to the United States. Graupe left his gallery stock in Paris occupied by the Nazis, but before leaving Europe asked his business partner Arthur Goldschmidt to help save his gallery inventory. Graupe hoped Customers conversing in a tavern could be sent to Switzerland for safekeeping for the duration of the war, MFA Boston said.

Goldschmidt fled to southern France in 1940, which was then not yet occupied by Axis forces. The following year, Goldschmidt negotiated the sale of Customers conversing in a tavern to Karl Haberstock, a Berlin art dealer who worked on Hitler’s behalf and was authorized to travel between occupied and unoccupied regions of France.

Sales of Customers conversing in a tavern and other works of art from the gallery without his approval angered Graube, according to the World, and Graupe and Goldschmidt broke off their business partnership within months. Goldschmidt emigrated to Cuba later in 1941 before moving to the United States in 1946.

“It’s not a black and white story,” Reed told the World. “It is difficult to categorize with precision the decisions of an emigrated Jewish art dealer, who lives in the south of France, trying to survive and get out of Europe.”

In April 1941 Haberstock sold Customers conversing in a tavern to Hitler’s artistic adviser, Hans Posse, and the painting was selected for the Führermuseum, a museum Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria. The panel was recovered by Allied forces after the end of World War II from Austria’s Altaussee salt mine, where Nazi Germany stored more than 6,500 looted works of art. Graupe pursued ownership claims for the missing artwork after the end of the war and early on included Ostade’s painting among his claimed works, although he later removed the listings for unknown reasons. In 1951, the painting had not been officially claimed and was auctioned off by the French government. Graupe died in Germany in 1953, and it is unknown if he ever found out what happened to the painting.

“I think it’s wonderful that we can show the painting,” Reed told the World. “The objective of repairing all these material losses is, yes, to repair a wrong, but it is also to preserve the memory of the people who lost this property.”

Museums, galleries and private collectors are under increasing pressure to return works of obscure provenance. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Washington Conference, a summit held in 1998 to determine guiding principles for the return of works of art looted by Nazi Germany before and during World War II.

Earlier this month, the city of Hagen in northern Germany restored landscape painting by Auguste Renoir to the heirs of its former owner, a Jewish banker persecuted by the Nazis, before buying it back to remain on display at the Osthaus museum, where it has been since 1989.

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