The Van Gogh Wars | Part 3: The Olive Picking (1889) Belonging To Holocaust Escapees Ends Up In Greek Shipping Magnate Museum
On December 15th, just two days after the filings by descendants of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the heirs of Hedwig Stern filed for a return of The Olive Picking (1889) by Vincent van Gogh.
The seemingly unrelated climate protests of splashing liquids on Van Gogh paintings are worth noting here, in that the olive trees depicted in his artwork had one of their worst fruiting years in history in 2022.
It is an oddly fitting metaphor for the dispute between the Greek shipping company’s Mediterranean wealth and the stolen legacy of the Nazism’s destruction. No one wins.
This is a continuation from Part 1 and Part 2.
As a result of the September 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hedwig Stern lost her German citizenship. She and her husband Fritz fled Nazi rule in their home city of Munich the following December, without her beloved art collection, which included Olive Picking, or La cueillette des olives (1889) by Vincent van Gogh. Her attorney, Kurt Mosbacher, was ordered to liquidate her property, and Olive Picking was among the inventories.
With Hedwig and her family safe in Berkeley by January 1937, the legal filings assert that Mosbacher facilitated the sale of the Van Gogh and another Renoir painting through Thannhauser Gallery to a German art collector, Theodor Werner. Thannhauser gallery had once been run eponymously by a Jew, but had been taken over for these kinds of sales. Justin Thannhauser had known Hedwig Stern personally, and the buyer, Theodor Werner. The money from the sale (55,000 Reichsmarks) was transferred into an account under their name, but the Sterns never saw the profits again. By 1939, any property under their name was formally confiscated.
In 1948, Thannhauser himself was able to bring Olive Picking to New York, where he sold it to Vincent Astor that year. Astor, New York socialite royalty, was the inheritor of his father, John Jacob Astor IV, who had died on the Titanic in 1912.
The documents state that the art collector Theodor Werner, who had bought Olive Picking during the war, returned another work by Gustave Courbet originally belonging to Hedwig Stern in 1955. As the Van Gogh painting had already been sold, presumably he may not have been able to retrieve it on their behalf.
In 1956, Vincent Astor sold Olive Picking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As of a New York Senate ruling in September 2022, a plaque must be included on any artwork with Holocaust provenance in a New York museum, whereas the 1950s had no such precedent, and the painting was held without issue for decades.
Nevertheless, the lawsuit alleges that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Theodore Rousseau was one of the world’s foremost experts on Nazi art looting, having been an esteemed Monuments Officer in the U.S. Army during World War II tasked with returning precious works of art. Before he died the following year, they believe Rousseau approved the 1972 sale of the painting with a conscious disregard for its origin with Hedwig Stern. The amount of the transaction is still not known.
The 1972 purchase was by Basil and Elise Goulandris, Greek shipping tycoons who hold the painting under a non-profit organization called the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation that hosts exhibitions in Athens and Andros, Greece. A representative responded with a comment previously printed: “To date, the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation has not been officially informed on any action related to what is indicated in your email, therefore we cannot comment on it.”
Hedwig Stern has nine descendants included in the lawsuit. Their lawyer, Robert Kohn, could not be immediately reached for comment.
The link between this case and that of the latest filed by the heirs of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy just two days prior is not overt at first, but it dates back to their older suit regarding his Picassos. These Picasso artworks were also sold by Thannhauser Gallery during the fire sales of the Nazi era. Thus, if those heirs were working on a deep dive into the sales records, it is very possible they were able to successfully assist those for Stern. However, this information could not be formally confirmed.
Yet another Vincent van Gogh painting, Meules de blé, sold for $35.5 million at Christie’s New York in November 2021, but only after negotiations within the house between the Rothschild heirs (Jewish Nazi victims) and its current owner.
All of these cases have their origins in the 2006 precedent set by Maria Altmann, the inheritor of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the stunning deceased woman’s portrait made by Gustav Klimt in 1918. The then-anonymously heralded Woman in Gold was repatriated to Altmann’s family from the Belvedere Museum in Austria, ultimately sold to Ronald Lauder for $135 million and displayed permanently at the Neue Galerie.