Amsterdam Museum to Return a Matisse Work Sold Under Duress in World War II

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam says it will return an Henri Matisse painting that has been in its collection since 1941 to the heirs of its former owner, a German-Jewish textile manufacturer and art patron who sold it to fund his family’s escape of the Netherlands’ Nazi occupation.

The museum announced the return of the work, “Odalisque,” on Tuesday after the Amsterdam City Council received “binding advice” from the Dutch Restitutions Commission, a government committee that rules on cases of Nazi-looted art.

The heirs said in a statement that the decision provided symbolic justice. “The Matisse underwent the same journey from Berlin to Amsterdam as our grandparents,” they said. “But it stopped there in the Stedelijk, with almost no acknowledgment from whence it came for 80 years.”

Before World War II, Matisse’s “Odalisque,” dated 1920-21, was part of the private art collection of Albert and Marie Stern. Albert and his twin brother Siegbert had helped establish a leading Berlin womenswear company in the 19th century. Albert and Marie were patrons of the arts and regularly hosted art and music events at their Berlin home. Marie, who had studied art, assembled a collection that also included works by Vincent van Gogh and Edward Munch.

After the National Socialists took power in Germany in 1933, the Sterns suffered several antisemitic blows. The state expropriated their business and stole many of their assets and possessions, and the family was threatened with physical violence, said Anne Webber, the founder and co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which handled the restitution claim.

In 1937, according to the Commission, the couple moved to Amsterdam, taking along some of their possessions, while applying for visas to countries including Cuba, Mexico and the United States, ultimately unsuccessfully. By July 1941, the family had little food, and sold everything they had left in the hopes of escaping Europe.

The Matisse was sold in 1941 to the Stedelijk through a family friend. Shortly afterward, the entire Stern family was arrested and sent to concentration camps, where Albert’s twin brother, the couple’s two grown sons and many other family members were murdered.

The couple’s grandchildren, ages 5 and 16 months, were sent to Theresienstadt camp in what is now the Czech Republic but managed to survive, according to the Commission. Marie, who was sent to Liebenau camp in Germany, also survived the war, but Albert was killed in Laufen Castle internment camp.

“The unrelenting pressure they experienced from the Nazis,” Webber said in an interview, and “the looming threat to their lives was very powerful.”

“They were physically threatened over a period of many months,” she added. “We did a huge amount of research and found a remarkable number of documents in some 26 different archives that tell this story.”

Toon van Mierlo, the chair of the Restitutions Commission, said the evidence of a forced sale in this case was highly compelling.

“The circumstances in which Albert Stern lived in Amsterdam, after he fled Germany, were horrible, terrible,” he said. “He did his utmost to get his family to safety in good order, but he could not, and finally he died at the end of the war.”

Of the Matisse restitution, van Mierlo said, “My feeling is that justice has been done.”

Matisse’s “Odalisque” hangs in the museum’s permanent collection display, next to other odalisques — or reclining nudes — painted in the same period by Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky.

“We don’t have many Matisses, so it’s an important work,” said Rein Wolfs, the Stedelijk Museum’s director, “which shows the importance of Orientalism in French painting.”

He declined to estimate the work’s monetary value, but he said its personal history outweighed financial considerations.

“It’s very important that we are able to restitute this work,” Wolfs said. “It doesn’t repair what took place during the wartime, but at least some justice can be done, so many years later.”

The city of Amsterdam, the Matisse’s official owner, is expected to hand the work over to Stern’s family members before the end of the year, a Stedelijk spokeswoman said.

“The return of works of art, such as the Odalisque painting, can mean a lot to the victims and is of great importance for the recognition of the injustice done to them,” Amsterdam’s alderwoman for culture, Touria Meliani, said in a statement. “As a city we have a role and responsibility in this.”

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