Many Happy Returns

July 12th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

From Boston to LA, museums continue to return or pay restitution for seized works of art.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In January, we wrote about museums that had voluntarily returned artwork that belonged elsewhere. Happily, it appears that museum officials’ quiet repatriation of stolen artworks has continued, with their genuine desire to return property to its rightful place trumping the temptation to boast about doing the right thing.

Most recently, The Boston Globe reported that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to pay restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed at Auschwitz after determining that Nazis had likely stolen a 17th-century Dutch painting that once belonged to him. The MFA purchased it for $7,500 in 1941 from a New York City art dealer.

According to the Huffington Post, the museum will not be returning the work, an Eglon van der Neer painting, to Walter Westfield’s heir (nephew Fred Westfield), but it will pay an undisclosed sum to him per an agreement that culminates a decade-long investigation by the museum.

Earlier this year, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to return a 17th century painting, “Landscape with Cottage and Figures” by Pieter Molijn, to the heirs of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose entire 1400-piece collection was looted by the Nazis. Many of his prime works, according to an Earth Times article, were seized by Hermann Goering for Adolf Hitler’s own personal collection. The Getty bought the painting at auction in 1972 (the sum was never disclosed), but never displayed it.  According to the article, Goudstikker's daughter-in-law said she hoped the Getty's decision would encourage four additional U.S. and Canadian museums to return specific paintings from their collections.

It’s encouraging to see museums proactively researching works with vague provenance in an effort to make amends. In fact, the MFA’s website includes pages dedicated to explaining its ongoing efforts, linking both to a list of works that are priorities for further research and also to claims that have already been resolved since the museum started actively researching questions in provenance in 1998. (The Resolved Claims listings themselves provide a fascinating glimpse into the collections of former owners and their seized paintings.) On the site, you can also find links to other websites maintained by international organizations committed to searching for and recovering art lost during World War II. Heard any inspiring stories? Share them with us.