German Owner Refuses to Return Nazi-looted Degas Painting to Jewish Heirs

A German art gallery says its client wants the family to pay $3.4 million for Mlle. Gabrielle Diot, which the Gestapo stole out of Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg's safe

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Another dispute is brewing over a painting the Nazis stole from its Jewish owner: Edgar Degas’ 1890 portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot, which is now worth several million dollars. The work eventually found its way to a Hamburg art dealer who says he sold it to a Swiss buyer whose name he refuses to disclose.

Before the war the owner, Paul Rosenberg, was a highly successful art dealer in Paris; painters such as Matisse, Picasso and Braque chose him to represent them.

Edgar Degas, 'Mademoiselle Gabrielle Diot,' 1890.Credit: Art Recovery International

With the fall of France to the Nazis and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy regime, Rosenberg and his family fled to a town near Bordeaux. The family, some of their paintings in tow, hid in a villa they rented. On one wall they hung the portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot.

With the publication of anti-Jewish laws inspired by Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, the family had to flee once again. With the assistance of the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the family received forged travel documents that enabled them to reach New York  – Sousa Mendes was later declared a member of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for saving the Rosenbergs and other Jews.

Before leaving France, Rosenberg rented a safe at a branch of the bank BNCI (now part of BNP Paribas), leaving 162 paintings there. After the Gestapo emptied his gallery’s warehouse in Paris, it found the villa near Bordeaux and took the paintings that were left behind. The Gestapo also broke into the safe and sent the works to Germany.

After the war, Rosenberg returned to France. Before his death in 1959, he managed to retrieve a great part of his collection. His children continued with these efforts, but 60 paintings that were listed among his private possessions remained unaccounted for.

Over the last two decades three granddaughters of Rosenberg have continued the search: Elizabeth Rosenberg Clark and Marianne Rosenberg, who live in the United States, and American-born television and radio interviewer Anne Sinclair, who lives in Paris.

Art dealer Paul Rosenberg with a painting by Matisse, 1937.Credit: Entrée libre

A few years ago, while leafing through an art magazine, one of Rosenberg’s granddaughters was surprised to see the portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot on sale by Galerie Hans in Hamburg. This painting is on the list of items that were stolen from Rosenberg.

The gallery’s owner, Mathias Hans, told Haaretz he was only a middleman in the painting’s sale and declined to discuss its possible return to the Rosenbergs.

To get it back, the Rosenbergs hired the company Art Recovery International. Hans said the painting had been sold to a Swiss buyer who wished to remain anonymous, according to Art Recovery’s chief executive, Christopher Marinello.

Hans refused to produce a bill of sale or any other document showing that the painting had left Germany for Switzerland, Marinello said, adding that Hans offered a “compromise” in which he would sell the painting to the Rosenbergs for $3.4 million, the price he paid for it.

The Rosenbergs rejected the offer. Marinello says he wrote to the German culture minister but the ministry said the heirs of the stolen painting should pay compensation before getting it back. The family has no intention of doing so.

The French newspaper Le Figaro published a response by Hans to Marinello: “His actions are based on lies, employing scare tactics. My client is willing to sell the Degas painting for $3.4 million.”

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