Thursday, January 26, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Family sues for valuable Van Gogh painting they say Nazis plundered, long held in Greece

The descendants of the original owner of the painting say it was stolen by Nazis prior to the outbreak of World War II.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Heirs and descendants of a Jew who allegedly owned a valuable Vincent Van Gogh painting have sued The Metropolitan Museum of Art and a Greek shipping tycoon, claiming they profited from the looting of the painting for decades.

In a federal court filing in San Francisco alleging a breach of contract, unjust enrichment and fraud, the plaintiffs — Judith Silver and Deborah Silver; Kofi, Sekai and Mary Lee; Walter and Daniel Henrickson and Dorit and Ilan Marcks — say they are the heirs of Hedwig Stern. Stern was a Jew whose valuable van Gogh painting, titled the “Painting” was confiscated by the Third Reich when she was forced to flee from Munich, Bavaria in Germany to Berkeley, California with her husband and children to escape Nazi persecution.

Stern's heirs say the Metropolitan Museum sold the valuable van Gogh painting, confiscated by the Nazis in WWII, in a secret transaction without the plaintiffs' knowledge around 1972. This allowed Greek shipping tycoon Basil Goulandris and his wife Elise to hide the painting for decades. 

The plaintiffs say in a 13-page complaint that when Hedwig Stern escaped Germany in December 1936, the Gestapo barred her from exporting “Painting” and other artworks. Her former attorney Kurt Mosbacher was appointed as trustee to liquidate her property around April 1938, selling “Painting” and a painting by Renoir of hers to German collector Theodor Werner. In January 1939, the Gestapo confiscated all the property of Fritz and Hedwig Stern, and their financial compensation from Werner. In 1955 Werner eventually returned another of Stern’s artworks but did not return “Painting” or the Renoir artwork.

The “Painting” eventually reached New York and the Metropolitan Museum bought it in 1956 from Vincent Astor. Stern’s heirs think that the Museum's then-Chief Curator Theodore Rousseau knew the painting had been looted from Stern by the Nazis and their collaborators, but allowed the 1972 sale to go through. Rousseau was one of the world’s foremost experts on Nazi art looting, they say, and the “Painting” was one of the highly prominent post-Impressionist works that the Nazis condemned as “degenerate.”

The Greek nonprofit organization Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation has allegedly since at least June 2022 displayed the painting, which the plaintiffs say is worth about $75,000, at a museum in Athens. Plaintiffs say attempts to recover it have been unsuccessful, and included a photograph of it from Dec. 10 in the museum of the B&E Foundation in Athens.

Stern’s heirs quote the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues: “Art and cultural property of victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) and other victims of Nazi persecution was confiscated, sequestered and spoliated, by the Nazis, the Fascists and their collaborators through various means including theft, coercion and confiscation, and on grounds of relinquishment as well as forced sales and sales under duress, during the Holocaust era between 1933-45 and as an immediate consequence.”

“The conduct of the defendants, as alleged herein, was wanton, fraudulent and malicious, and done consciously in disregard of the rights of Hedwig Stern and her heirs, thereby warranting the imposition of exemplary or punitive damages,” the plaintiffs said in their complaint.

On Tuesday a similar suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, with plaintiffs claiming Sompo Holdings Inc. a Japan-based insurance holding company, knew the Vincent Van Gogh painting “Sunflowers” was a “casualty of Nazi policies” or was “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s history. The plaintiffs are also heirs and descendants of a German Jewish banker who sold his extensive art collection in the mid-1930s in the face of the growing Nazi threat — who died in 1935.

Stern’s heirs are asking for injunctive relief and damages for recovering personal property and restitution due to “unjust enrichment,” and a jury trial.  

The Foundation and the press team for the Metropolitan Museum did not respond to requests for comment. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...