SAM ponders its options as deadline nears on ‘hot’ Matisse

Most everyone agrees Seattle Art Museum's 'Odalisque' is Nazi plunder. But who's going to pay for its return?

B>The timer is beginning to wind down for the Seattle Art Museum and its Matisse. Last October, the descendants of a prominent Parisian art dealer notified the museum that one of the prize pieces in SAM’s collection, a Matisse painting known as Odalisque, was stolen property, looted by the Nazis during World War II, and the family wanted it back. The family gave the museum several months to evaluate the claim. Now a deadline is approaching, and SAM may face a lawsuit unless it agrees to return the painting sometime in the next few weeks.

The museum may be considering legal moves of its own. Odalisque was bequeathed to SAM in 1996 by the late timber baron Prentice Bloedel, who bought the piece 40 years ago from Knoedler & Co, a major New York art dealer. Sources close to the case last week said that the museum is now going after Knoedler, seeking compensation for the possible loss of the Matisse. (Seattle Art Museum officials declined to discuss the current negotiations. Knoedler also refused to comment.)

The outcome of the SAM case will be closely watched around the world. In recent years, there have been a wave of claims by Holocaust victims and their heirs against US and European museums, whose curators do not appear to have inquired too deeply into the lineage of their collections. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are both fighting such claims. The Pompidou Center in Paris recently agreed to give up a piece by Braque that was stolen during the war.

There’s little doubt that SAM’s Matisse is the one that was seized, along with hundreds of other pieces, from the cache of art dealer Paul Rosenberg when the Nazis took over Paris in 1940. Members of the Rosenberg family say they have compared a photo of the SAM painting with a photo from the Rosenberg archives. “We literally counted stripes,” says Marianne Rosenberg, granddaughter of Paul, and an attorney in New York. “There was no doubt.” Even SAM spokesperson Linda Williams concedes, “It’s the same dimensions, the same time period. It’s most likely the same work.”

SAM’s Matisse came to the Rosenbergs’ attention through a combination of laborious research and amazing fluke. In 1996, journalist Hector Feliciano published a book called TheLost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art, which traced the history of five Jewish art collections. Included were dozens of photos, including one of a Matisse painting from Paul Rosenberg’s wartime gallery called Oriental Woman Seated on Floor. Feliciano said the painting’s whereabouts were unknown.

Last fall, shortly after the book was published, one of Rosenberg’s granddaughters brought a copy of the book to a party in the Catskills. At that same party was a grandson of Prentice Bloedel, who happened to live next door. Browsing through the book, he recognized the Matisse painting as one he’d seen in his grandfather’s house. The Rosenbergs sent a letter to SAM this past October, asking that the painting be returned.

Marianne Rosenberg says “there’s been no hostility” in the negotiations with SAM. “They’ve been very helpful and very genteel.” The two parties have had what’s called a “tolling agreement” in place for the last several months, which gives the museum time to evaluate the claim, without the delay counting against either party. But that agreement will expire in a few weeks. “At that point,” says an attorney representing the Rosenbergs, “we will proceed legally or proceed to get it settled.” It may be some indication of the case’s direction that the Rosenbergs last week changed counsel, switching to a small firm that specializes in litigation.

What exactly the museum has been doing all these months is unclear. Linda Williams says that the matter is being handled by SAM’s attorneys, who in turn declined to be interviewed. But if the museum plans to resist the claim, it’s likely they are trying to determine if Paul Rosenberg ever regained control of his painting, as he did with some of his other stolen works. If he parted with the painting willingly, somewhere along the chain of ownership, then SAM’s title would be valid, legal experts say.

SAM might also try to argue that the Rosenbergs were not as diligent as the law demands in trying to find the lost work. SAM’s spokesperson takes care to note that the Matisse was on almost continual display at the museum between 1992 and 1996. “We had it on public view three and a half years before the book,” Williams says. “So it was surprising to see it described as ‘Whereabouts unknown.'” Marianne Rosenberg contends that the provenance—or ownership history—of the painting was not obscure either. “If anybody had bothered to check with the Matisse family they would have seen it listed as ‘Estate of P. Rosenberg—missing.'”

The most likely course of action, experts say, is for SAM to make a claim against the New York dealer that sold Odalisque to Prentice Bloedel in 1954— in effect, passing the buck of responsibility. “This does happen,” says John R. Horan, a New York City attorney who has worked on several important lawsuits over stolen art. “Each turns to the other until you get back to the thief.” The Bloedel estate—whose heirs include daughter Virginia Wright and her husband, Bagley Wright—might also have a claim against Knoedler, since it no doubt took a significant tax write-off for the donation, which it will likely have to pay back. SAM will not say what dollar value has been placed on the painting.

Attorney Horan, who currently represents two other museums in disputed art cases, thinks that SAM “may be trying to reach some negotiated arrangement with the family. They may try to persuade them to donate [Odalisque] to the museum, or leave it to the museum after someone has died, rather than just return it absolutely.” Marianne Rosenberg says that idea “has not been discussed.” A rough estimate of the worth of the painting is in the $7 million range, she contends. But she says, “What’s driving us is not the money. This is something we very much need to do in honor of my grandfather.”