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French relent over Rosenberg war loot claims

A Monet returned; a Bonnard, Léger and Matisse still claimed

On 11 May, the painting “Interior” (1913) by Pierre Bonnard (lot 126, estimate. $800,000-$1,000,000) was taken off the block at Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art. Neither Sotheby’s nor the Rosenberg family would discuss the identity of the consignor or the withdrawal of the work from the sale, which was made at the request of the Rosenburgs, who were said to be negotiating with the consigner.

On 29 April, the French government returned to the Rosenberg family Monet’s “Nymphéas” (1904). The painting had been in French hands since 1949.

The Monet, along with some 160 works, was taken from Rosenberg's house in Floirac in southwestern France in September 1940, after two dealers had denounced Rosenberg and received three Pissarros as a reward. It passed, via the Germany embassy in Paris, to the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. After the war, it was sent to the Louvre in 1950 and placed in the Jeu de Paume. Since 1975, it had been in the collection of the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Caen, Normandy, classified as part of the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), some 2,058 works returned to France after the war and never reunited with their owners or their heirs.

The picture was loaned several times to major exhibitions, and it was at “Monet in the twentieth century” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that the owners spotted it. After checking with the Art Loss Register, the Rosenberg family asked the Réunion des Musées Francais for its return.

The initial French response was to suggest that the Rosenbergs should have known that the picture was at Caen, but the authorities soon capitulated and agreed to give the picture back to Micheline and Elaine Rosenberg, the dealer's daughter and daughter-in-law.

Catherine Trautmann, the French Minister of Culture said that renewed efforts would be made to return art to the families that lost it during the Holocaust era.

Critics, however, point to French reluctance to return another Rosenberg picture, Fernand Léger's “Figure in green and red” (1913), which has been kept at the Centre Georges Pompidou. Museum administrators maintain that the picture was the property of Paul Rosenberg's brother and that the real heir is Leonce's daughter, Odette, who is in her late-80s and in a nursing home. They are said to have offered her lifetime care if she allows the painting to remain at the Centre Pompidou. Elaine and Micheline Rosenberg continue to assert their claim as heirs.

Meanwhile, the Rosenbergs are fighting on another front, in Seattle, Washington, where they filed suit in August for the return of Matisse’s “Odalisque” (1928), donated to the Seattle Museum of Art (SAM) in 1996 on the death of the local timber baron, Prentice Bloedel. The Rosenbergs allege that the Nazis looted this picture from a bank vault in Libourne near Bordeaux in 1940, and that it passed through the Jeu de Paume Museum onto the market. Mr Bloedel bought the picture in 1954 from Knoedler and Co. on the gallery's word that the work had been in Matisse's own collection. Documents show that Knoedler appeared to have known the picture’s true provenance.

SAM stands by its refusal to give the Rosenbergs the $3 million picture for which it paid nothing ("an asset held in trust for the people of Seattle") until compensated by Knoedler, which it has sued, a case that insiders give SAM scant chance of winning.

The museum's director, Mimi Gardner Gates, sits on the task force for Holocaust-era art, a body created by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to expedite such claims. To the Rosenbergs' chagrin, her AAMD colleagues have not intervened to resolve this case Further to complicate the matter is the fact that Ms Gates is married to William Gates, father of Bill Gates of Microsoft, one of the world's richest men. Both Gates père et fils are SAM benefactors and either might clear this log jam with one forgettable cheque. Instead, the dispute has become a "legal Vietnam", said Ann Hoguet, the Rosenbergs' lawyer in Manhattan.

Some sixty paintings that Rosenberg lost during the war remain unrecovered.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'French relent over war loot'