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Heirs of Jewish Art Dealer Retrieve a Matisse

(CN) - A Norway museum has agreed to return a Henri Matisse painting allegedly confiscated by Nazis during World War II, heirs of the work's rightful Jewish owner said.

Matisse painted "Profil bleu devant la cheminée" ("Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace") in 1937, and the painting has been at the Henie-Onstad Art Center in Hovikodden, Norway, since 1961, Art Recovery Group said in a statement Friday.

The organization represents the heirs of "the famed French gallery owner and collector" Paul Rosenberg, who fled to New York with his family in 1940.

This family said the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a special Nazi looting agency, confiscated 162 works, including the Matisse in question, from Rosenberg's collection on Sept. 5, 1941.

Gustav Rochlitz, "an art dealer active in Paris who was convicted in 1947 before a French Tribunal for trading illicitly acquired property during the Nazi occupation," subsequently acquired the painting after agents for Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering traded it, the Art Recovery Group said.

From there, the painting allegedly went to Galerie Henri Benezit in Paris and then to Niels Onstad.

Though this man "requested detailed provenance information," he did not discover that Rosenberg and his heirs had made numerous unsuccessful declarations in search of the painting, Art Recovery Group said. The museum in Norway likewise was allegedly unaware of the claim when it acquired the painting in 1961.

As the heirs remained unaware of the painting's whereabouts, "the 'provenance Paul Rosenberg Collection' has followed the painting in catalogues and numerous exhibitions all over the world," Art Recovery Group said in a statement.

The Rosenberg heirs said research it conducted with the museum in French and American archives, and in collaboration with a number of museums, institutions and experts in France, "confirmed that the painting was stolen from Paul Rosenberg as a result of Nazi persecution."

"Although it is HOK's unwavering position that both Niels Onstad, and subsequently HOK, acquired the painting in good faith, HOK has chosen to adhere to international conventions and return the painting to Rosenberg's heirs, a decision for which the heirs express their deep appreciation," Art Recovery Group said in a statement.

Museum board chairman Halvor Stenstadvold credited an "extensive investigation" in justifying the painting's transfer.

"HOK's board has decided to return the painting without further conditions," he said in a statement through Art Recovery Group.

Art Recovery chairman Christopher Marinello handled the negotiations.

"HOK is to be commended for their methodological approach in reviewing the provenance documentation we presented as well as the legal issues involved," he said in a statement. "Ultimately, it was the strength of the moral claim that persuaded the HOK to restitute this painting unconditionally to the Rosenberg heirs. We are grateful to our researchers in France and the United States whose expertise and assistance in this matter were invaluable."

Marinello's group noted that "the case is the first of its kind in Norway."

In this vein, museum director Tone Hansen said the case "may serve as a precedent for similar cases in the future."

"This painting has been in our collection since HOK was founded; it is a key work, important for both HOK and its patrons," Hansen said in a statement through Art Recovery Group. "The comprehensive investigations have been exhaustive and HOK has taken the time necessary to examine all available facts in the case."

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