One of Norway’s leading art museums has brought to a close one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing chapters in its history. The Henie Onstad Art Centre, just west of Oslo, is returning a painting by French artist Henri Matisse that it displayed on its walls for years, after confirming that it was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Halvor Stenstadvold, chairman of the board of the art museum founded by ice skating legend Sonja Henie and her shipowning husband Niels Onstad, told reporters on Friday that the board had decided to unconditionally return the painting entitled Profil bleu devant la cheminée to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, the French Jewish art collector and dealer who owned it before the war and was forced to flee the Nazis.
Onstad, an avid art collector himself, had bought the painting at a gallery in Paris around 1950 and contributed it to the Henie Onstad Art Centre that he and his wife opened in 1968. The Matisse painting was one of Henie Onstad’s most prized possessions and was often offered on loan to other museums such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Rosenberg’s heirs confronted museum officials, however, in 2012, claiming that they could prove that the Matisse painting had been stolen by the Nazis in 1941 along with hundreds of Rosenberg’s other artworks left behind when he fled France. That set off an investigation by the museum, whose officials claimed they were unaware of any conflict over the painting’s ownership.
On Friday, nearly two years after learning that a conflict did indeed exist, the museum announced the painting would be handed over to Rosenberg’s heirs. “Henie Onstad Art Centre’s comprehensive investigation of the case has led to the conclusion that the demand (from the Rosenbergs) is valid,” Stenstadvold said.
Tone Hansen, director of Henie Onstad, noted that the painting had been “important” for both the art center and the public, and had been on display and accessible for nearly five decades. Even though Henie Onstad maintains that Niels Onstad, and thereafter the museum, acquired the painting “in good faith,” the museum’s board “chose” to follow international conventions and return the painting to its rightful heirs, who in turn stated that they appreciated the decision.
Many experts involved
The investigations by both Henie Onstad and Rosenberg’s heirs involved both French and American archives and Henie Onstad cooperated with what its officials called “a large number of museums, institutions and experts in France.” The probe confirmed that the painting was stolen from Paul Rosenberg as a result of Nazi persecution.
Negotiations between the Rosenberg heirs and Henie Onstad officials were conducted by Christopher A Marinello, a lawyer specializing in return of cultural items for the Art Recovery Group PLC. He said the case illustrates how important it is for museums and cultural institutions to examine their own collections in line with international principles. While some questioned why Henie Onstad took so much time to investigate the Rosenbergs’ clams, Marinello praised the museum for its “methodical approach” and its evaluation of both documents presented and judicial considerations.
The case was the first of its kind in Norway and may have consequences for other Norwegian museums. Henie Onstad officials said they kept government officials at the state Ministry of Culture informed as their investigation proceeded and they now advocate creation of a national committee to examine the origins of artworks in the public domain, in line with similar committees set up in the Netherlands, Germany and France.