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Friday, February 18, 2011

Holocaust Art

A recurring news story in various shapes and forms has plagued the art world and especially major museums for several years. Actually, we're talking not about one story but several regarding paintings stolen by the Nazi's from European Jews before and during WW II. The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Seattle Art Museum have both had difficulties dealing with paintings that disappeared during the Holocaust, only to turn up in major museums and in the hands of private collectors after the war. Thanks to computers and careful cataloging by Jewish groups, when these paintings are offered for auction or loaned to museums for retrospectives, immediately, questions arise as to their rightful ownership. With the paintings valued in the millions of dollars, it's the stuff serious lawsuits are made of.

Landscape with Smokestacks, 1890, Edgar Degas

In 1939, when they came to this country, Frederich and Louise Gutman changed their name to Goodman and began efforts to find and reclaim a pastel drawing by the French Impressionist, Edgar Degas, which they claimed was stolen from a Paris warehouse by the Nazis during the war. The work was entitled, Landscape with Smokestacks. It wasn't until 1987 that the drawing somehow made it's way to a New York art dealer where it was sold to the Searle Pharmaceutical Corporation founder, Daniel Searle, for $850,000. The work was purchased in good faith in what seemed at the time like a routine sale.

In 1995, Simon Goodman, one of the grandsons of the original owners, stumbled upon a photo of the painting in a book of Degas monographs. By then the drawing was worth $1.1 million. For over two years, attempts to contact Searle regarding the work of art were fruitless. Finally, the Goodman family attorney wrote Searle threatening litigation. Fortunately for all concerned, a settlement was quickly reached. Searle agreed to donate the painting to the Art Institute of Chicago which in return would purchase the Goodman's share for an undisclosed amount. Happily, everybody won, and the public can now view a work of art which, unfortunately, shares a dark past with thousands of other works confiscated during the Holocaust. The sad part is it took  fifty years to reach such closure.

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