By MELISSA EDDYMAY
Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer who specializes in tracking down looted and stolen art, with the recovered Matisse, "Femme Assise," in Munich on Friday. Credit Wolf
Heider-Sawall/Art Recovery, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
MUNICH — The slide made public in November 2013 showing a painting of a woman wearing a white blouse embroidered with blue, purple and red flowers, with a fan on her lap, was grainy, but its subject was immediately recognizable to Elaine Rosenberg. It showed a priceless Matisse. Her family’s Matisse.
Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer who specializes in tracking down stolen art, was in a New York hotel room at the time, when his phone rang. It was Ms. Rosenberg, his client and a descendant of Paul Rosenberg, one of the world’s leading dealers in Modern art, whose collection, including the Matisse, “Femme Assise,” or “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in an Armchair,” was looted by the Nazis.
“She told me, ‘That is our painting, go get it,’ ” Mr. Marinello said.
On Friday, more than 70 years after its disappearance and after a year and a half of hard-nosed negotiations, the painting was handed over to Mr. Marinello, on behalf of the Rosenbergs, at an art storage facility in southern Germany.
Part of the art trove hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt and discovered in his Munich apartment in 2012, it was one of the first two paintings from the collection to make it back to the families of the original Jewish owners.
Another painting found in Mr. Gurlitt’s home, “Two Riders on the Beach,” by Max Liebermann, was also handed over this week. Representatives of the descendants of David Friedmann, a Jewish industrialist from Breslau, whose art collection was looted by the Nazis, took possession of the picture on Wednesday, said August J. Matteis Jr., a lawyer who represents David Toren, a great-nephew.
The restitutions this week are the culmination of a discovery that upended the art world and laid bare the cumbersome bureaucracy in Germany that still hampers the return of looted works, despite pledges by the government to right the wrongs of previous generations. The Germans have vowed to provide proactive clarification and a fair and just solution, in keeping with Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.
Yet for Mr. Marinello, getting to this day involved combing through roughly 250,000 documents, letters and photographs in the Rosenberg family’s records; chasing down signatures of the rightful heirs and Mr. Gurlitt’s descendants; and pressing the authorities, past one failed agreement and through numerous phone calls and emails — including one exchange with the leading German researcher in which she insisted that “provenance research can’t be rushed.”
“The Germans are sticklers for detail and accuracy, which is good and important in provenance research, but following the process can be very frustrating to people like my clients, who are humans who suffered at the hands of one of the worst regimes in history,” Mr. Marinello said.
The Rosenberg family thanked German officials for their cooperation and encouraged others to pursue the return of looted works. “There is a great deal to be learned from this case,” the family said in a statement.
More than 1,200 pieces were found in Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment, another 250 in his Salzburg home. Two more works, including a Carl Spitzweg painting and a Pissarro called “View of Paris,” have been recognized as looted art. A task force established by the German government and the state of Bavaria continues to investigate the ownership history of about 590 works, while Mr. Gurlitt’s decision to leave his estate to the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland faces legal challenges.
Monika Grütters, who was appointed Germany’s minister of culture shortly after the collection’s existence became public, responded to international pressure by doubling the country’s budget for provenance research to 4 million euros, or $4.6 million, and establishing the German Center for Cultural Property Losses. The center serves as a clearing house for all provenance research in the country and as a central point for people seeking information about a missing painting or the history of a work in a private collection.
Germany has invested €13 million in provenance research and restituted 12,000 objects over the past decade, many of them books. But families and even small museums have been stymied by uncertainty over where to go for information related to looted works, as well as some insensitivity as to what is at stake.
Prosecutors in Augsburg, Germany, who confiscated the works from Mr. Gurlitt’s home in February 2012 as part of a tax investigation, kept the discovery a secret. Only a year later, after a wave of international criticism over its handling of the art, did the Culture Ministry intervene.
Mr. Marinello, who runs Art Recovery International, based in London, sent documents proving the Rosenberg claim to the judge in Augsburg who had jurisdiction over the case at the time. They included inventory cards listing the Matisse as item 1721, and a 1946 declaration to the French government signed by Paul Rosenberg that included the Matisse among works still missing.
Mr. Marinello never received a response.
Several weeks later, he composed a letter in German and sent it directly to Mr. Gurlitt. That led to negotiations that nearly resulted in the painting’s return. But hours before he was to board a flight from London in March 2014, his phone rang — Mr. Gurlitt had fired his lawyer, and the restitution was off.
Two months later, Mr. Gurlitt, 81, died in his home, leaving his collection to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Although agreements reached with the German and Bavarian governments before his death stipulated that any works that were found to have been looted were to be returned to their rightful owners, the Rosenbergs and other families now faced negotiations not only with the German task force but also the Munich probate court handling the estate.
All that time, the painting sat in a warehouse outside Munich.
Mr. Marinello took possession of the work on behalf of the Rosenberg family at the storage depot early Friday. He declined to say what the family intended to do with the painting, aside from having it cleaned to remove the layers of grime and to restore the original brilliance of its colors.
The first step, however, would be to get it out of the country. “It is definitely leaving Germany,” he said.