The Board of Trustees governing the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) announced today that they will be repatriating a painting from their collection that was looted by top Nazi Reich official Herman Göring in 1940.
The painting, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Sebastian, was taken from the Goudstikker Gallery after the family of the gallery fled ahead of the Nazi invasion. Göring, the head of the German Luftwaffe, organized one of the greatest bouts of art theft in modern history. According to the Telegraph, he had stolen almost 26,000 railway cars worth of art from around Europe. German officials in 2015 alone found 1,400 pieces of his stolen art in a Munich apartment.
Observers of art the Nazis were typically anti-modernists, and held modern art up as a stylistic example to be discouraged — which is why the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Sebastian would have been such a prized piece. The piece was owned by Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish art dealer, and one of the wealthiest art dealers in Europe. Goudstikker specialized in Dutch and Flemish paintings. Married to a Viennese Opera singer, the Goudstikker family fled to the U.K. ahead of the Nazis, with Jacques unfortunately dying in transit. Göring made the acquisition of the Goudstikker’s collection a priority once the occupation of the Netherlands was complete.
Repatriating Jewish art has been ongoing since the end of World War II (WWII), yet in 1998, 39 countries signed a joint agreement to identify stolen art from families who perished during the Holocaust. Almost every single European country, along with Brazil, Israel, Canada, Russia, and Argentina, were signatories to the agreement. Also in 1998, the U.S. State Department hosted a conference which set forward guidelines requiring museums to analyze their acquisitions, with a specific focus on art looted by Nazis. Around the same time, the Germans set up a Lost Art Database that could act as a global repository for “lost cultural property” from the WWII years.
Luckily, the Goudstikker family kept meticulous records 0f their collection. Upon WWII ending, the painting was returned to the Netherlands, but the Dutch government chose to sell it to an unknown buyer instead of returning it to the Goudstikker family.
The painting was eventually bought in “good faith” by the VMFA in 1958. In the press release from earlier today, the VMFA’s Director Alex Nyerges was quoted as saying, “The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is pleased to return this painting to Marei von Saher, the painting’s rightful heir and owner…It is simply the right thing to do.”