MANHATTAN (CN) – A painting seized by the Nazis during World War II was returned to its rightful owner Wednesday at a repatriation ceremony in lower Manhattan.
“Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin,” or “Two Women in a Garden,” painted in 1919 by French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was seized by the Nazis from a Paris bank vault in 1941. It belonged to art collector Alfred Weinberger, whose granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer flew from France for the painting’s reveal this morning at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Sulitzer, who said she lives in the south of France, appeared to start crying as the piece was unveiled. She told the audience Renoir was one of her favorite painters, but that wasn’t what made her happiest to see it.
“It’s more the fact of discovering that there are people around the world, in Europe, in America now, that are concerned about what happened,” Sulitzer said in English.
The heiress to the painting said she began living with her grandparents when she was 5 years old — in the early 1960s — so the painting reminded her of her life with them “in the middle of the art world.”
Sulitzer said the war was a “taboo” subject in the house, so she did not know the painting was missing for decades. In 2012 or 2013, Sulitzer said, she got a call from lawyers in Berlin asking if she would help track down her grandfather’s possessions.
Federal prosecutors traced the theft of Weinberger’s Renoir to the the Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg, which the Third Reich created to “study” Jewish life and culture, masking its persecution of the Jews as a pseudo-academic pursuit.
Sulitzer explained Wednesday that her grandfather survived the war and had a chance afterward to declare the things of his that were stolen, including jewelry and paintings. He registered claims with both the French and German governments for restitution.
The painting, meanwhile, bounced from South Africa to London to Zurich and finally to Christie’s Gallery in New York, where a private collector put it up for auction in 2013. A Christie’s representative declined to comment Wednesday.
Sulitzer is not sure she will be able to keep “Two Women in a Garden,” as she now has to pay back those governments.
“I have to think about it,” she said in response to a question about her plans for the work.
“I must say that unfortunately I have to pay back the French government and the German government … [for what] they gave me for this painting, and actually, I can’t afford it,” she said. “So I’ve got to see whether I can keep it. But probably Christie’s will have the painting to be sold in auction. Of course I would have loved to keep it.”
Sulitzer said her family is still missing five paintings, including four Renoirs.
Berman declined to speculate on the worth of the painting.
“Suffice it to say that Madame Sulitzer believes that it’s priceless,” he said.
Berman also thanked William F. Sweeny, Jr. of the FBI’s New York field office, who spoke briefly. Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Falk was in charge of the case.
Sulitzer seemed to agree that much of the painting’s value was sentimental, and said she was considering writing a book on her experience.
“It’s more the symbol of the life I had with [my family] and the symbol of the justice after, the huge work everybody did to make this day … possible,” she said.
“I think it’s when you’re just a French woman living somewhere in the south of France, and then you hear that the FBI’s investigating, well, you can imagine it’s a shock,” Sulitzer added, laughing.
“It’s lot of emotion because you really realize how people are concerned about what happened. … It’s very important that we — me — as a human being, as a Jewish person, to consider that you have people who work for the justice.”
“Two Women in a Garden,” painted during the last year of Renoir’s life, will be on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City through Sunday.