Museum launches artworks probe

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Officials at one of Norway’s leading art museums, the Henie Onstad Art Centre just west of Oslo, are now investigating the origins of 18 of its most famous pre-war artworks, following allegations that Henie Onstad has a Matisse painting in its collection that was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Heirs to the Jewish art collector who once owned the Matisse painting, meanwhile, remain frustrated that Henie Onstad officials haven’t turned it over to them yet.

This undated image released by Henie Onstad Kunstsenter shows part of the painting "Blue dress in a Yellow Arm Chair" from around 1936 by Henry Matisse. PHOTO:  Henie Onstad Art Centre/Oystein Thorvaldsen

This undated image released by Henie Onstad Kunstsenter shows part of the painting “Blue dress in a Yellow Arm Chair” from around 1936 by Henry Matisse. PHOTO: Henie Onstad Art Centre/Oystein Thorvaldsen

The American heirs of French art collector Paul Rosenberg have been laying claim to the Matisse painting for nearly a year. Known as both 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), they contend the painting was part of Rosenberg’s collection that was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941. The Art Loss Register (ALR) in London, which has an international database of stolen and missing works of art, also claims there is overwhelming evidence that the Nazis stole the painting from Rosenberg along with hundreds of his other artworks after he was forced to flee the country and eventually settle in the US.

While officials at Henie Onstad don’t deny the painting’s history, they still haven’t returned it on the grounds they need to do more research. “We need to turn every stone, we must research this,” Tone Hansen, director at Henie Onstad, told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. “We’re not ready to draw any conclusions.”

Henie Onstad’s reluctance to part with the painting has frustrated both the heirs and ALR Director Christopher A Marinello, who complained to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last week that neither he nor the heirs had heard from Henie Onstad for a long time. The delay is fueling a dispute over who now has rights to the painting and, reported DN, led to an upcoming meeting involving officials from Henie Onstad, ALR and Norway’s Ministry of Culture. The ministry must enforce international conventions regarding return of stolen art. Marinello and the heirs allege that Henie Onstad officials, after earlier meetings in both Oslo and New York, don’t seem willing to resolve the matter and aren’t taking the Rosenberg heirs’ claim seriously.

Officials at the Henie Onstad Art Centre are feeling pressured to return the Matisse painting that's been a central part of its collection for decades. PHOTO: Henie Onstad Kunstsenter

Officials at the Henie Onstad Art Centre are feeling pressured to return the Matisse painting that’s been a central part of its collection for decades. PHOTO: Henie Onstad Kunstsenter

Not so, says Hansen, responding that Henie Onstad is taking the matter very seriously indeed. So seriously, she told Aftenposten, that the museum has hired an art historian to also research the background of 18 other artworks in Henie Onstad’s collection that date from before the war’s end in 1945. Management doesn’t think there’s anything amiss with their histories that might spark demands similar to that of Rosenberg’s heirs, but they want to be sure. Henie Onstad chairman Halvor Stenstadvold, meanwhile, told DN that the museum is feeling pressured by Marinello and the heirs.

The disputed Matisse painting is one of the most central artworks in the Henie Onstad collection, and was among many purchased by Norwegian shipowner and art collector Niels Onstad. He was married to figure skater and film star Sonja Henie, who also became an eager art collector, and the couple founded the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter to house their joint collection.

Onstad bought the Matisse painting from Galerie Henri Bénézit in Paris around 1949/1950. There is uncertainty surrounding how the Galerie Henri Bénézit came to possess the painting, and Onstad is believed to have been unaware it had been stolen at the time of his purchase. After the Nazis confiscated Rosenberg’s art collection, the Matisse painting is believed to have been in the possession of Nazi Party leader Hermann Göring. Henie Onstad officials are most keen on finding out exactly what happened to the painting between the time it was retrieved from the Nazis until it landed in the Bénézit gallery, because they believe Bénézit never cooperated with the Nazis and should have been in a good legal position to sell it to Onstad.

The 18 other works of art in the Henie Onstad  collection now under probe were also all purchased by Onstad before he and Sonja Henie established the foundation now running Henie Onstad. Some were purchased in the US and some in Paris, with two bought from the same Galerie Henri Bénézit. One of them is also a Matisse painting, “Les Citrons” (The Lemons). Another is Picasso’s “Femme assise dans un fauteuil” (Woman sitting in an armchair).

While there is no dispute over the provenance of these 18 works of art, Henie Onstad is following the lead of international museums such as MoMA and The Getty Museum in the US in researching artworks that were or might have been in circulation in continental Europe during the Nazi era. Both museums give the ownership history of such artworks on their websites, and the Oslo museum intends to do the same. The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art, from 1998, to which Norway is a signatory, along with 44 other countries, encourages nations to research and identify artworks.

Hansen calls the research they are now embarking on “groundbreaking,” and says it demonstrates that they are taking the Washington treaty seriously. She also points out that it poses financial challenges for such a small institution as Henie Onstad. “There is no doubt that the Matisse affair has been a wake-up call for us,” she told Aftenposten.

Norway’s National Gallery in Oslo does not face the same challenges with its own art collection. Its senior curator Nils Messel told Aftenposten that “the National Gallery was penniless after the war, and had practically no money to buy art. Wealthy shipowners, on the other hand, made huge acquisitions.” He says that none of the artworks at the National Gallery are disputed, although there are gaps in their knowledge about the provenance of some individual works.

The disputed Matisse painting remains on display at the Henie Onstad Art Centre. “We believe that, so long as it is in our ownership, it should be available to the public,” Hansen said.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay and Nina Berglund

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