Why won’t SAM give it back?

Inside this building is a painting that was stolen from a Jewish family by the Nazis.

A little more than a year ago, on an August weekend, Seattle native Prentice Wright went to a dinner party in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Among the dozen or so guests was a woman he’d never met before, named Elisabeth Clark, who carried a recently published book with her.

The chance meeting of these two people—whose grandfathers’ fates had strangely intersected decades before—set off a painful and complex chain of events that has brought international attention, and some amount of shame, to the Seattle Art Museum, and resulted in a lawsuit that could be costly and embarrassing to everyone involved.

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The book Clark had with her was called The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art by Hector Feliciano. It described the Nazis’ systematic looting of the art collections of five Jewish families in occupied France—including that of Elisabeth’s grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, one of the most important art dealers in prewar Paris.

Prentice Wright picked up the book, which had been left on the living room table, and began idly flipping pages. A graduate of Lakeside School and a fine-art photographer, Wright, too, has eminent lineage: his grandfather, the late Prentice Bloedel, was one of the Northwest’s wealthiest timber barons, and his mother and father, Virginia and Bagley Wright, are prominent art collectors and philanthropists in their own right. “I could have easily not opened the book,” Wright recalls. “I just ruffled through it.” But as he did, his eyes fastened on one black-and-white photo of a painting by Henri Matisse.

According to the book, the Matisse was one of dozens of pieces belonging to Paul Rosenberg that were seized by the Nazis when they took over Paris in 1940. Its whereabouts today were “unknown.” But Prentice knew exactly where it was. He had seen it all his life hanging in the living room of his grandparents’ Bainbridge Island mansion. It had since been bequeathed, upon their death, to the Seattle Art Museum.

Wright’s claim of recognition was not taken seriously at first. “Everyone was going, ‘Yeah, sure,'” he remembers. Matisse, after all, painted a number of works similar to the one in the photo. “Of course, I was skeptical,” Elisabeth Clark recalls. “It didn’t seem possible.” A short time later, however, she wrote to the Seattle Art Museum and requested a color slide of its Matisse. Comparing the slide from SAM with the photo from their archives, the Rosenbergs could see plainly that Prentice was right: The two paintings were the same.

A few weeks later, the Rosenbergs wrote to the museum, asking that their stolen Matisse be returned.

A year later, the painting has not been returned. While publicly expressing “sympathy” for the family, the museum has been stonewalling them. Last fall, the Rosenbergs agreed to give SAM several months to evaluate their claim. But instead of seeking some kind of settlement, the museum turned around this summer and invited the Rosenbergs to file suit against them. Last month, the family did.

Asking to be sued is highly unusual behavior. The risk, expense, and public scrutiny brought on by a lawsuit—let alone a trial—are traumas that most public institutions want to avoid. But SAM’s hardball strategy is not as perplexing as it might first appear. By forcing the family into court, the museum has been able to further its real aim, which is not so much to thwart the Rosenbergs as to secure some kind of compensation should the Rosenbergs win.

Last week, SAM made that strategy both public and official. In its first legal “answer” to the Rosenbergs’ suit, the museum filed a “third-party” claim against Knoedler & Company, the powerful New York art dealer that sold the Matisse to Mrs. Bloedel back in 1954. Knoedler is a highly respected Upper East Side institution that has been around for 154 years, longer even than the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today it represents postwar artists such as Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler. SAM alleges that Knoedler knew the Matisse had once belonged to Paul Rosenberg and failed to disclose that fact to the Bloedels when they bought the painting 44 years ago. Should the Rosenbergs win their case, the museum argues, Knoedler should pay SAM for the value of the lost painting, which is probably around $3 million.

The three-way lawsuit will now become a very complex and drawn-out affair as the Rosenbergs’ claim is held hostage to SAM’s brawl with Knoedler. As time passes and expenses mount, the Rosenbergs will be more likely to run out of money, or patience, and settle for something less than outright return of the painting.

From a self-interested point of view, this legal strategy has merit. But it also raises ethical questions. SAM, after all, is a tax-exempt institution that did not pay a dime for this painting and does not appear to have any serious evidence contradicting the Rosenberg claim. Should it force the family to endure an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit, in order to better its own chances of winning cash back from Knoedler?

“For a public institution to be stiff-arming the Rosenbergs, whose harsh treatment at the hands of the Nazis is well-documented, is irresponsible,” argues Washington, DC, attorney Thomas R. Kline, who is working with a number of families (though not the Rosenbergs) to reclaim artworks from private collectors. “They don’t have to do it.”

In an interview, SAM’s attorney, John Reed of Seattle’s Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, argues that the museum is meeting its “fiduciary” duty. SAM, he says, “has charge over a valuable asset which is used for education, scholarship, and delighting the public…. [The museum] has to assure that it protects its permanent collection and if there’s an adverse claim to an item in its collection, it has to diligently research the validity of the claim. And if it turns out that the claim is valid, then it has a responsibility to look to others who may be responsible for the damages that loss will inevitably cause. And that’s what the museum is doing.”

As with so many of their other crimes, the Nazis’ art seizures were meticulous, systematic, and carried out on a vast scale. Hitler had a special interest in art (he had applied twice to fine-art school) and hoped to create the world’s greatest museum. During the occupation of France, “one-third of all art in private hands was looted,” says Lost Museum author Hector Feliciano. “And remember, at the time Paris was the center of the art world.”

Paul Rosenberg’s gallery “was on the crossroads between the 19th-century and avant-garde art in France during the period between the wars,” Feliciano writes. Rosenberg had exclusive contracts with Matisse and Braque, as well as a close relationship with Picasso, who did a number of pencil drawings of Rosenberg’s daughter, Micheline. (She is now 80 years old and a plaintiff in the suit against the Seattle Art Museum.)

As the Germans made their way toward Paris in 1940, Rosenberg stashed more than 300 works, from both his personal collection and professional inventory, at various locations in France. Several dozen, including a Matisse known as Oriental Woman Seated on Floor, went to a bank vault in the southwestern town of Libourne. Rosenberg then fled to America with his family.

In 1941, the bank vault was raided by the Nazis, who made a careful record of its contents. “Nazis, as we know, were obsessed with lists and inventories of everything,” Feliciano says. Using archival research, Feliciano was able to trace the path of the Matisse as it changed hands in the months immediately after its seizure. But his research drew a blank after about 1942.

From New York, Paul Rosenberg began recovering many of his paintings immediately after the war and in the years that followed. He had an advantage over other collectors in that, as a dealer, he’d kept careful written and photographic records of his holdings. Several hundred pieces were recovered; about 70 are still missing. When Rosenberg died in 1959, the effort was taken up by his son, Alexandre. “From my youngest days I would hear stories of my father going off to reclaim the lost works,” recalls Alexandre’s daughter, Marianne Rosenberg, now 43.

Neither Marianne nor her sister, Elisabeth Clark, 46, chose to go into the art business. Since Alexandre’s death in 1987, the Rosenberg holdings have been in liquidation. “It was my father’s wish that the gallery close,” says Marianne. Alexandre’s widow, Elaine, 76 and living in New York, is the other plaintiff in the case.

All the while, one of the Rosenbergs’ long-lost works was sitting undisturbed above the living room fireplace at the Bloedels’. (Their Bainbridge Island estate and its surrounding gardens, now known as the Bloedel Reserve, are today open, by appointment, to the public.) “It never moved in my entire life,” says grandson Prentice Wright. “If it had ever been loaned for an exhibition, I probably would have found it,” Hector Feliciano says. In fact, SAM reports the painting was loaned for a month to a Washington, DC, gallery in 1966.

The Bloedels and their family have a long and close association with SAM. Daughter Virginia Wright and her husband, Bagley, and grandson Charles Wright are all major donors and serve as trustees. In 1991, when Virginia Bloedel died, a half-interest in the Matisse, known to the family as “Odalisque” was willed to SAM, and the museum began displaying it. When Prentice Bloedel passed away in December 1996, the museum received full ownership. Several months later, the painting was taken down after a major exhibit, and it has remained in storage ever since.

SAM’s public relations director Linda Williams candidly admits that the museum did little research into the ownership history, or “provenance,” of Odalisque before accepting it into the collection. Up until the last few years, she says, SAM, like other museums, was only interested in verifying that donated works were authentic (i.e., a real Matisse).

“My understanding of general practice around the country is that, museums, up until very, very recently, conducted no due diligence on donations,” says attorney Thomas R. Kline. “They don’t like to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the most revered art institution in the country, with a staff many times larger than SAM’s, admitted to The Boston Globe last year that it had done no research before accepting a 1994 gift of a Monet that now appears to be World War II booty.

Still, New York attorney John Horan, who has participated in a number of stolen-art cases, points out that, under the law, “the Rosenbergs do not need to show that the museum knew or should have known” about the painting’s checkered past. “They just have to show that the painting is theirs.”

This summer, after about a half-dozen claims, including the one against SAM, received widespread media attention, a task force of the Association of Art Museum Directors recommended to its members that they undertake a “comprehensive review” of their collections to see if they contain wartime plunder. The task force, which included SAM director Mimi Gardner Gates, also issued “guidelines” for dealing with such claims, saying, “The museum should offer to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner.” But “equitable” and “appropriate” were left undefined, thereby providing no guidance whatsoever.

In a speech to the National Press Club this past June, Philippe de Montebello, the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the leading museum spokesperson in the country, stopped well short of saying that museums had a responsibility to return stolen paintings. “There’s the whole question of an intervening half-century, a great many good-faith purchasers, public interest….” He said, “Museums intend to resolve claims and, where appropriate, provide restitution…. At the same time, we are deeply mindful of another obligation: that to the public to keep works of art on view for the enjoyment and education of as many people as possible.”

To illustrate what he called “the complexities” of the issue, de Montebello recounted a recent conversation with “a Jewish gentleman of modest background,” who expressed disgust at the claims being lodged by Holocaust survivors. “‘The museums, the press, the Congress, are [all] focusing on the belongings of the 50 richest families in Europe during the war,'” said the man. “‘Six million of us didn’t have paintings to exchange for the lives of [our families].’ . . . Well, this is a different take on it,” de Montebello comments. A different take indeed: Museum directors who spend their days coddling and kowtowing to the richest stratum of capitalist society, suddenly transformed into soak-the-rich socialists.

Last month, a dispute over a Degas at the Art Institute of Chicago was settled under terms that would seem to embody the ideal “public interest” solution. The family that had sued for the artwork agreed to let the museum keep it in return for a payment of half its market value. The institute also agreed to name the family’s dead ancestors, as well as the wealthy trustee who had donated the Degas, on the wall next to the painting.

But the Rosenbergs believe they have a stronger case than the Chicago heirs. Defense lawyers in that case raised questions as to whether the painting might actually have been sold rather than stolen. The painting was also on view at public exhibitions for years before the family ever made its claim. In the Rosenberg case, by contrast, the paper trail is relatively clear, and the painting was in a place where the family couldn’t possibly have been expected to find it.

Still, the Rosenbergs’ New York attorney, Laura Hoguet, does not dismiss the possibility of a settlement, especially given the enormous expense of prolonged lawsuits. “It’s always a mistake to say, in any dispute, that the only thing you’re open to is total victory. Anybody who’s been around lawsuits knows it’s a good idea to settle them if you can.”

But the museum has refused to engage in any mediation that does not include the Knoedler gallery. “Each party is tied to the other,” argues SAM’s attorney John Reed. “All three parties have to participate either in a settlement, or in the ultimate adjudication of the rights in court.” Knoedler, not surprisingly, has so far declined to come to the table.

That may change in the wake of last week’s legal attack by SAM. The museum accused Knoedler of deliberately misleading the Bloedels about the painting’s provenance—failing to mention the connection of Odalisque to Paul Rosenberg even though the gallery had information about it. The museum also intimates, without saying so explicitly, that the Bloedels themselves raised concerns about the painting’s history—a very risky notion to introduce, since it could suggest they were not the innocent purchasers they have been made out to be.

Knoedler’s attorney in New York, Lewis Clayton, says he doesn’t believe there’s any truth to the charge of misrepresentation. “It’s based on snippets from some letters,” he says, “and unfortunately, the people who wrote and received that material aren’t with us anymore [to testify].” Clayton adds: “It’s interesting to me that the museum can speak quite confidently about what the purchaser of the work relied on and what they knew. I can’t do that for living people,” let alone the dead.

In suing, the museum does not actually need to prove that Knoedler knew about the painting’s checkered past. As attorney John Horan notes, when a gallery makes a sale, it is usually “warranting that the work is authentic and, impliably at least, that it has no horns on it, or no problems in its provenance.” If that turns out not to be the case, the buyer may be able to take legal action. However, by alleging that the gallery did know, and suing for fraud, SAM is obviously trying to embarrass and pressure Knoedler.

The gallery contends that SAM has no right to sue on any grounds, since it never bought anything from Knoedler. “The museum got a gift and didn’t pay anything for it,” says Clayton. “So it’s hard to see how they have a claim against [us,] with whom they never dealt.” But SAM says it is suing on the Bloedels’ behalf. As inheritor of the painting, “We are the party who succeeded to the rights of the Bloedels against Knoedler,” argues SAM’s attorney Reed.

The museum will not say at what value it carries the Matisse on its books. However, in May of last year, another in Matisse’s Odalisque series of paintings—one with the same dimensions as SAM’s—was sold at Christie’s auction house in New York for $3.6 million, including commission. (If there is such a thing as a “nudity premium,” however, the Christie’s Odalisque may have benefited.)

The museum most likely has no insurance to cover the loss of the painting. Eric Fischer, of Fine Arts Risk Management, an insurance broker in Arlington, Virginia, says that while museums typically insure themselves against the theft of selected items in their collections, they aren’t insured against items that turn out to be stolen. You can never legally own stolen property, he notes, so neither can it be insured. In response to demand, insurers have recently introduced defective title coverage, Fischer says.

In lieu of insurance, SAM is demanding that Knoedler pay it “the present value” of Odalisque, plus damages, if the Rosenbergs win their suit.

SAM’s action against Knoedler, if successful, could save a significant amount of money for the Bloedel estate, which is overseen by Virginia Wright. Since the painting was a gift, its value was no doubt subtracted out of the Bloedels’ taxable estate. But experts in estate planning say that if the museum has to give up the painting, and does not get full compensation from Knoedler, the tax break would have to be repaid, costing the Bloedel/Wright family perhaps several hundred thousand dollars. (The Wrights were out of town and unavailable for comment.)

For all the grandstanding about Knoedler, the most striking thing about SAM’s legal filing last week was that it presented no serious rebuttal to the Rosenbergs. The museum has long explained its foot dragging by saying it was busy conducting research into the merits of the family’s claim. Now, many months later, the museum has not offered up any contrary evidence or arguments to the family’s basic assertion: that the Matisse was stolen and rightfully belongs to them.

SAM’s attorney John Reed insists the research is not finished, especially since the museum hasn’t yet gained access to Knoedler’s archives. Either way, it is clear that the museum does not intend to hand over the painting anytime soon. “The museum wants it determined in a courtroom,” says the Rosenbergs’ attorney Laura Hoguet. Otherwise, she notes, Knoedler could come back and say, “‘Acch, you gave this thing away. How can you sue us for the value of it when you didn’t have to give it back?’ That could make the litigation [with Knoedler] more difficult and expensive.” Reed concurs with this analysis, saying, “The museum is not going to take any action that would prejudice its complaint against Knoedler.”

Hoguet says she can understand this approach “as a matter of prudence or conservatism.” Still, she contends, “There are other issues to consider. The Rosenbergs are individuals, and this kind of litigation is no joke, it’s very expensive. [For the museum] to put the family to this burden simply to improve their own tactical position seems to me to be not the equitable or fair thing to do.”

Other observers are less charitable toward SAM. “They’re taking no responsibility now just as they took no responsibility when they accepted this painting,” says attorney Thomas Kline. “If the Rosenbergs’ case is strong, the museum ought to honor it and then stand in the Rosenbergs’ shoes. They need to step up, take responsibility for their actions, and say, ‘You know, these people were victimized by the Nazis, they do own this painting and we’re going to give it back to them. And if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.'”

Failing that, the case is likely to drag on for sometime. The Knoedler gallery probably has the deepest pockets of any of the parties involved: Sources say it is partly owned by the estate of the late industrialist and art collector Armand Hammer. (Knoedler’s attorney will not comment on its ownership.) It is represented in New York by Paul, Weiss, a powerhouse law firm known for being aggressive and tenacious. “If they choose to make [a] ‘litigation Vietnam’ out of this, they can,” says Hoguet.

Prentice Wright feels surprise and some sadness at the fallout from his encounter in the Catskills last summer. Speaking from Manhattan, where he lives just steps away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he says of the Rosenbergs, “I guess they deserve to get it back. But there’s loss involved on this side, too.” For her part, Elisabeth Clark says she has “full respect” for the Bloedel family, and Prentice in particular. She believes the average person, finding a family treasure in a book about the Nazis, “wouldn’t have said anything. But he was very open. If it hadn’t been for him, we still wouldn’t know.

Related Links and information:

Seattle Art Museum


The Association of Museum Art Director’s guidelines for handling Nazi art theft claims


Metropolitan Museum of Art director Philippe de Montebello’s speech to the National Press Club


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