Vincent van Gogh is in the spotlight again this week as the heirs of a Jewish collector have sued the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens for the return of an allegedly Nazi-looted painting.
The federal court filing in San Francisco contends that the Met secretly sold van Gogh’s 1889 painting La cueillette des olives (Olive Picking) around 1972 without the knowledge of its original owner, Hedwig Stern, who had reportedly sought its restitution. It is currently on view at the Athens museum operated by the foundation of the late Greek shipping tycoon Basil Goulandris and his wife, Elise.
The plaintiffs — Judith Silver and Deborah Silver; Kofi, Sekai and Mary Lee; Walter and Daniel Henrickson and Dorit and Ilan Marcks — say in the 13-page complaint that Stern’s van Gogh painting was confiscated by the Third Reich when she fled from Munich to Berkeley, California, with her husband Fritz and her children in 1936.
In 1938, the Nazis appointed Stern’s former lawyer, Kurt Mosbacher, to liquidate her properties, which included the van Gogh and a painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The works were sold by the “Aryanized” Thannhauser Gallery, whose operations had been transferred from the former Jewish owner, Justin Thannhauser, to the German art dealer Paul Roemer. The van Gogh and Renoir were sold by Roemer to Theodor Werner for 55,000 Reichsmarks.
After the end of World War II, Stern allegedly searched for her collection, but both paintings had already been sold, with the van Gogh going to collector Vincent Astor in New York in 1948. The Met subsequently purchased it from Knoedler Gallery in 1956.
The report filed with the complaint written by Jonathan Petropoulos — a historian and leading expert on Nazi-looted — argues that Theodore Rousseau, then the chief curator of the Met and himself an expert on Nazi-looted art, approved the deaccession of the work after its dubious provenance came to light.
The New York Times broke the news of the secret sale in 1972, calling it an “unusual action,” as the Met “had not previously disposed of works of the quality of the Van Gogh”. The buyer was reported as Gianni Agnielli, an “Italian industrialist” and associate of Marlborough Gallery. Thomas Hoving, the museum’s then-director, said the proceeds had been used to “buy great things by masters who we simply don’t have and [which] will never be available again,” such as a painting by Diego Velazquez.
The explanation failed to satisfy skeptics in the art community, and the Art Dealers Association of America called the sale a “breach of public trust,” as the deaccession of important works should be publicly announced to give other art institutions the first chance at acquisition.
In 2018, the paper’s obituary for another former Met curator, Everett Fahy, priced the van Gogh, one of only 15 olive tree paintings made by the famed Impressionist while at the Saint-Rémy mental asylum, at $250,000.
In a statement to Artnet News, a spokesperson for the Met said the van Gogh was “deaccessioned in a widely reported sale in 1972 that was part of a larger-scale and much debated effort to raise acquisition funds.”
It continued: “The sale of the Olive Pickingmet the museum’s strict criteria for deaccessioning—specifically, it was recorded that the work was deemed to be of lesser quality than other works of the same type in the collection. While the Met respectfully stands by its position that this work entered the collection and was deaccessioned legally and well within all guidelines and policies, the museum welcomes and will consider any new information that comes to light.”
The Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation has not responded to requests for comment.
The painting has been on display at the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation Athens outpost since at least June 2022, according to the complaint. The plaintiffs say that attempts to track down its location have been unsuccessful and neither institution has been reluctant to provide information. The Goulandris business dealings were illuminated in the 2016 Panama Papers leak, which reported that their $3 billion art collection had been transferred to various shell corporations.