DENVER — A painting in the Denver Art Museums collection since 1961 has been confirmed recently as part of the assets of a Holocaust survivor, who was forced to sell it in a Nazi-collaborated art sale before World War II. The museum is in the process of returning the painting to its rightful heir, who has known of its whereabouts for more than two decades.
"I haven't quite come down to earth yet. It really hit me. I just had goosebumps and tears. I'm happy and sad at the same time — happy because the painting is coming back and sad because of the memories it [reconstitutes]," said Oregon resident Marianne Rosson, the 79-year-old daughter of Holocaust victims. The painting was once owned by her father, Paul Hartog, a banker in Berlin before the war.
Oil on canvas, "The Letter" is believed to be the work of a follower of 17th-century Dutch baroque painter, Gerard Terborch. Terborch was an interior genre artist, painting scenes of everyday life among the upper-middle class in Holland.
As with many works of Terborch and his contemporaries, the colors tend to be subdued, reflecting the dark fashion of the time. But many art historians believe they also add to the richness of such domestic scenes. The Terborch school has been praised for its lively rendition of fabrics such as silk and taffeta. "The Letter" is painted in muted greens, browns and reds.
"The Letter" was bequeathed to the Denver Art Museum in 1961 by one of its trustees, Robert Silbar, who bought it in a New York art gallery earlier that year. The painting's history was not recognized at the time.
Hartog, who lived in Berlin, was forced to sell his assets including his 31-piece art collection at a Nazi-coerced sale in 1934 at the Graupe auction house. Rosson and her family have been trying to locate Hartog's complete collection ever since.
Rosson's nephew, who saw a copy of the painting in a Denver Art Museum catalog in the 1960s, contacted the museum inquiring about "The Letter."
He told the museum that the family has several photographs of Hartog's apartment in Berlin, depicting scenes of the interior. In the background, the painting in question hangs on a wall.
"In that letter was the evidence that we were looking for, confirming the facts that Hartog was a victim of the Holocaust and that he was divested of all of his property, including the art," said the museum's deputy director, Joan Carpenter Troccoli.
Due to the recent emphasis on Holocaust restitution, virtually all American art museums research their collections for any pieces that might have been taken in a similar manner.
The museum's staff searched the databases of several lost art registers, like the Lost Art Internet Database and the Art Loss Register, that house information about stolen or lost art, antiques and other valuables. "This picture had a history, but there weren't any dates. And that was a little suspicious," said Troccoli
Before the artwork is returned to Rosson, Denver's museum has had to run the gamut of committees. "Whenever we deaccession a piece, which means to take it out of the collection," Troccoli explained, "we need to go through a process that has a lot of checkpoints. Its obvious that this is a special case, but we still need to run it through the appropriate channels."
Rosson implores other museums to return Nazi-confiscated art. "I never thought I would be one of the fortunate ones."