It is a quest that spans three generations. It involves Nazis, Picasso and World War Two battles. It would be rejected as a film plot, but the hunt to recover Paul Rosenberg’s stolen art collection is a tale of prudence, luck, coincidence and determination.
It starts in the late 19th century with Alexandre Rosenberg, a prominent Jewish Impressionist art dealer in Paris. He left his thriving business to two of his sons, Léonce and Paul. The two brothers parted ways, both opening independent galleries in the 8th arrondissement.
“Léonce was a visionary,” says Marianne Rosenberg, Paul’s granddaughter and Léonce’s great niece. “He had the first and only signed contract with Picasso. But Léonce was not a savvy dealer in terms of commerce. My grandfather was, however, and when Picasso got frustrated with Léonce he moved to Paul.”
A shrewd businessman, Paul Rosenberg built a roster of artists that included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. His relationship with Picasso was so assured that the two lived next door to each other in Paris. Picasso even signed Paul’s son, Alexandre’s birth certificate.
In the late 1930s, sensing trouble, Paul Rosenberg sent much of his inventory on traveling exhibitions to the US, South America and Australia. He took the additional precaution of sending the meticulously recorded documents about his collection to a former colleague in the UK. This would prove critical in the fight to recover 400 Nazi-looted pieces of art.
In 1940, during the invasion of France, Paul Rosenberg fled with his family from France. They were granted visas for the US and left Europe via Portugal. All but Alexandre and two of his first cousins – who were not allowed to leave the country because of age restrictions – fled to New York.
Unable to immigrate with the rest of his family, Alexandre, Paul’s only son, got the last Polish boat to the UK where he joined the Free French Forces. He served in West Africa; fought in the Battle of Normandy; survived the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and was at the liberation of Paris. During the liberation Alexandre attacked and stopped what was thought to be the last train of deportees out of France. It only had goods aboard. Some of these were his father’s stolen paintings, the identifying labels still intact.
This was the beginning of a search – now undertaken by three generations of Rosenbergs – to restore the family’s notable art collection.
A respected international finance lawyer and granddaughter of the late Paul Rosenberg, Marianne Rosenberg recently opened her own gallery, Rosenberg & Co., on New York’s Upper East Side. In June 2015 she spoke with Private Art Investor both about this new step in her professional life and her family’s pursuit of its stolen art.
How do you remember your grandfather Paul Rosenberg?
I was still young when he died, but I do remember him as being very fond of me. He was the consummate dealer; an extraordinary man, who was incredibly charismatic and generous.
He used the gallery to raise money for charity where he charged admission for the events. In 1948, for instance, he held an event for the NY Heart Association. And before that, in 1942, he held a Cézanne show in New York that was for the benefit of Soldiers of Fighting France. The money raised went to the Free French Forces.
He also supported many contemporary artists. My father [Alexandre Rosenberg] continued that practice after Paul’s death, working with British artists like Hamilton Fraser, Graham Sutherland, Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage. He mixed the non-contemporary with the contemporary.
Art must have been a prominent part of your life growing up.
Everyday, I’d return from school and trundle through the gallery to get home. The dinner conversation was always about the gallery and art. And, when we went on family vacations, it was museum after museum, church after church, dealer after dealer.
Did you ever think of becoming an art dealer?
Absolutely. I had always assumed I would be an art dealer. My great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncle and father were all dealers. Occasionally, I’d even work with my father. [Alexandre Rosenberg created the Art Dealers Association and he was on the Art Advisory Panel.]
I was dumbfounded when, in my senior year of high school, I discussed it with my father, and he said “no”. The reasons were obscure, and I ended up going to law school.
After I finished my degree, I worked in France as a lawyer in a prestigious Wall Street firm. Then I returned to the US for law school, which I completed in one year; joined another Wall Street firm; and, made partner in short order. [Three months after Marianne’s father died.]
At the time there weren’t many women practicing international finance law. I encountered everything that one would expect. I enjoyed the challenge of being a woman in that early era because I never wanted to give up my femininity.
I liked being a pioneer for the women who came after me. I wanted to be a model and inspiration, and open roads for them so they wouldn’t have to go through what I went through. We’re not there yet, but it’s much more subtle now.
How did you come to the decision to open Rosenberg & Co.?
Law firms were changing. There used to be a lot of camaraderie; but that frittered away, and it wasn’t fun anymore. As time went on, I felt less and less challenged. I began thinking about what I wanted to do. There was always an excuse not to open the gallery, but as I saw my youngest child going off to college, I realized I was out of excuses.
By 2014, I was entirely dedicated to making it happen.
Have you opened Rosenberg and Co. in part to carry on your family’s legacy as art dealers?
My vision was to honor my father, grandfather and family. It was a wish to create a gallery that handles only fine things, which doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. There was also the idea of supporting contemporary artists in a different way by making a financial investment in them and helping to organize their shows.
How do you select your artists?
Things I love. Obviously, I have a soft spot for works that have gone through one of the galleries – relating to the Rosenberg family. There’s something heartwarming and sentimental about that.
Almost 85% of the family’s collection has been repatriated?
It’s been returned in chunks. Paul had the foresight to send an enormous amount of inventory out France before the war. Approximately 400 pieces were stolen. [The collection and inventory was well in excess of that number.] Of the 400 pieces stolen, a large portion was recovered right after the war, some on the Train No. 40,044 and some thereafter.
During the war, there were rumors that my grandfather was dead, which made some people feel not so bad about dealing in his stolen art.
The Swiss had a five-year statute of limitations. But in 1947, Paul brought a case in Zurich against a dealer who had a large number of works from Paul Rosenberg. The defendant tried to pay him off, offering to buy the collection. But Paul said “no” because he wanted the works rightfully returned.
He had the courage to face the perpetrators in a court and he won the case. As legend has it, he turned around and said, “Now, if you would like to buy the paintings, you may.”
The precedent was set then and there: the Rosenberg family does not accept compensation. It is our property and it should be returned.
Once the trial was settled, he was happy to sell the paintings. He was an art dealer after all, so he would have sold them anyway had they not been stolen.
Who took on the role of getting the art back?
My grandfather, my father and then my mother after my father’s death. My cousin [Anne Sinclair], my sister and I continue the quest.
The family’s unrelenting pursuit to get back the paintings combined with the records has been critical in recovering the collection.
What were your emotions when they found the hoard in the house of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of 1930s German art dealer Hilderbrand Gurlitt?
The discovery of the Gurlitt hoard was different from other stories of recovery. We wouldn’t have known about the hoard had it not been for a journalist who got the story and leaked it.
It’s insane to believe that this man didn’t even exist for German authorities. It’s like he was the embodiment of his father’s ghost. Cornelius Gurlitt lived in an apartment with all this art surrounding him. It is incredible that no one had discovered them before or pursued his father. [When Hilderbrand Gurlitt died in 1956, the authorities questioned his wife, who said everything had burned in the bombing of Dresden in 1945.]
The cache was discovered in 2012, almost two years before it was made public. The German authorities must have known something was awry. You know there’s something wrong with anyone keeping a Matisse, that’s on a list of stolen art, in a crate of tomatoes. That’s just not what people do with their Matisses! Yet, they didn’t disclose it.
We found the German government’s handling of the case disappointing. It’s incredible that they didn’t understand the historical and moral significance of what was going on and instead kept it utterly secret, claiming that it was a tax case and hiding behind the bureaucracy of the case.
It’s an incredible story; if someone made it up for a movie or a novel people would say you were pushing the limits.
From a legal perspective, do you have any advice about recovering stolen art?
The legal side is often very complicated because you’re at the cross roads of several legal systems that treat stolen goods, acts of war and crimes against humanity in different ways.
A traditional court case is not necessarily the best avenue, though we will resort to this if we have to. Morality is really what is most important.
Do you find that that morality prevails in most cases?
In most cases, once a piece of art is identified as a “looted”, it’s impossible to sell it on the market.
The reputation of an art institution, dealer or individual holding a piece of Nazi-looted art is at stake. From the moral perspective, you just can’t keep it.
Were you involved in any of the legal aspects of recovering the Paul Rosenberg collection?
While I didn’t lead the team, I certainly watched from behind the scenes!
Is there a way to speed up the recovery process?
It’s a process; a very difficult process. We’ve had an easier time than most because we’ve had the advantage of using meticulously kept records.
It comes down to a combination of legal thinking, moral argument, historical proof, determination and persistence. Ultimately, every case is different.
Do you have any tips for art collectors who are purchasing art with questionable provenance?
If you have to get title insurance, don’t buy it. Provenance is critical, with the understanding that inevitably there can be gaps and that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with it.
For instance, if you have something that sold in Germany or Austria in 1947, perhaps extra due diligence is required.
Use sound judgment.
Maureen Chatfield’s paintings will be on display at Rosenberg & Co. July 14 – September 9, 2015 at 19 East 66th Street, New York, NY 10065.