Museum caught in painting dispute

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A valuable painting by French artist Henri Matisse, now claimed to have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II, has been hanging on the walls of one of  Norway’s leading art museums, the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, for decades. Now the Henie Onstad Art Centre finds itself caught in conflict over the painting, with its previous owner’s heirs demanding its return.

The Henie Onstad Art Centre in Høvik, west of Oslo, as it appeared when it opened in 1968. The disputed Matisse painting has been part of its core collection ever since. PHOTO: Henie Onstad Kunstsenter/hok.no

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Friday that Henie Onstad officials met earlier this week with the heirs of French art dealer and collector Paul Rosenberg in New York, to discuss the Matisse painting known both as Blå kjole i okergul lenestol (Blue dress in a yellow arm chair) and Kvinne i blått foran en peis (Woman in blue in front of a fireplace). The heirs believe they can prove the Nazis stole it from Rosenberg, who was Jewish, in 1941 along with hundreds of his other artworks after he was forced to flee the country.

Rosenberg managed to track down several stolen pieces after the war, but the Matisse painting was never found – until now, according to Aftenposten. The Art Loss Register (ALR) in London, a large database for stolen art, finally pinned down the painting in Oslo and contacted the art centre with its claim. ALR reportedly wrote in a letter to Henie Onstad that unless an “amicable solution” is found, Rosenberg’s heirs were ready to take the matter to court.

The real mystery
Henie Onstad officials claim they were unaware of any dispute over the painting’s prior ownership. It was among many purchased by Norwegian shipowner and art collector Niels Onstad, married to figure skater and film star Sonja Henie, who bought the painting from Galerie Henri Bénézit in Paris around 1949/1950. It has been part of the core collection of the Henie Onstad Art Centre founded by the couple in 1968 and has been on loan to many museums worldwide, most recently to Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

The painting has been one of the art centre’s most valuable pieces since its founding. Henie Onstad managers do not seem to question that the painting was stolen many years ago, and were ready and willing to meet Rosenberg’s heirs in New York. They say the real mystery, though, is what happened with the painting after it was apparently recovered from the defeated Nazis and until Onstad bought it from Galerie Henri Bénézit.

“Niels Onstad never hid the fact that the painting was from Paul Rosenberg’s collection, which indicated he acted in good faith,” a spokesman for Henie Onstad told Aftenposten.

To see the painting, and read more about the Henie Onstad Art Centre’s core collection, click here (external link).

The drama also involves the now-separated wife of former IMF-boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anne Sinclair, who stood by her husband when he was accused of sexual assault in 2011. Sinclair is the granddaughter of Rosenberg and one of his heirs. Rosenberg was a friend of Matisse, as well as Pablo Picasso, and his daughter Micheline, Anne Sinclair’s mother, had a close relationship with the pair and was painted by Picasso numerous times.

Sinclair has said she is familiar with the location of the painting, but will not get involved with the matter, nor is she the only heir.

Working towards a solution
The Henie Onstad Art Centre has received some criticism after the painting was located. “Even though the terrible destiny of the Rosenberg collection is widely known among professionals in the art world, we have seen no evidence that Henie Onstad Art Centre has reached out a hand to Rosenberg’s heirs to clarify the ownership of this painting,” Mary Cate Cleary, who manages the ALR’s historic claims, told Aftenposten. Henie Onstad’s management has been accused of being too passive over the years.

That’s disputed by the management. “From what we know, our predecessors have done what they could to find out the history of this painting, a history in which we had full confidence,” said current Henie Onstad director Tone Hansen. One of her predecessors, Karin Hellandsjø, has written that Henie Onstad intends to keep its core collection intact. Hansen added that they are now going through their collection to better map the artworks’ origins.

Cleary of ALR said they’re pleased Henie Onstad officials now seem to have recognized the gravity of the situation and that they seem willing to work to find a solution. Henie Onstad´s lawyer, Kyrre Eggen, told Aftenposten he believes the museum has legal rights to the painting since it has acted in good faith and been in possession of the painting for nearly 50 years.

“But this is not just a legal issue,” Eggen said, referring to ethical dilemmas in the matter. “There are other considerations.”

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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