Amsterdam Museum to Return Matisse Painting Sold Under Duress During WWII

Amsterdam Museum to Return Matisse Painting Sold Under Duress During WWII
Amsterdam Museum to Return Matisse Painting Sold Under Duress During WWII

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will return a painting by Henri Matisse, which has been in its collection since 1941, to the heirs of its original owner, a German-Jewish textile manufacturer and art patron who sold it to finance his family’s escape from the Netherlands occupied by the Nazis.

The museum announced on Tuesday that it was returning the artwork, titled “Odalisque,” ​​following “binding advice” from the Dutch Restitution Commission, a government body that handles cases of Nazi-looted art.

The heirs described the decision as symbolic justice. “Matisse made the same journey from Berlin to Amsterdam as our grandparents,” they said. “But she remained there, in the Stedelijk, with almost no acknowledgment of where she came from for 80 years.”

Before World War II, Matisse’s «Odalisque,» created in 1920-21, was part of the private collection of Albert and Marie Stern. The Sterns, who helped found a large Berlin women’s clothing company in the 19th century, were avid patrons of the arts, hosting numerous art and music events at their Berlin home. Marie, an art student, also collected works by Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Sterns faced severe anti-Semitic persecution. Their businesses were expropriated and many of their possessions were stolen. They also faced threats of physical violence, said Anne Webber, founder and co-chair of the Commission on Looted Art in Europe, which handled the restitution request.

In 1937, the Sterns moved to Amsterdam, taking some personal belongings with them, while applying for visas to countries such as Cuba, Mexico and the United States, but were ultimately unsuccessful. By July 1941 they were in dire straits and sold everything they had in the hope of escaping Europe.

The Matisse painting was sold to the Stedelijk in 1941 through a family friend. Shortly thereafter, the entire Stern family was arrested and sent to concentration camps, where Albert’s twin sister, the couple’s two adult children, and many other relatives were murdered.

The couple’s grandchildren, aged 5 and 16 months, were sent to the Theresienstadt camp in what is now the Czech Republic but survived. Marie, deported to the Liebenau camp in Germany, also survived, but Albert was killed in the Laufen Castle internment camp.

“The pressure from the Nazis was incessant,” Webber said in an interview. «They were physically threatened for months. We conducted extensive research and found numerous documents in 26 archives that tell this story.»

Toon van Mierlo, chairman of the Restitution Commission, said the evidence of a forced sale was compelling. «The circumstances Albert Stern faced in Amsterdam after fleeing Germany were horrific,» he said. «He tried everything to ensure the safety of his family, but he failed, and ultimately died at the end of the war.»

Regarding the return of the Matisse painting, van Mierlo said: «My feeling is that justice has been done.»

Matisse’s «Odalisque» is part of the museum’s permanent collection, displayed alongside other odalisques by Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky. «We don’t have many Matisses, so it’s an important work,» said Rein Wolfs, director of the Stedelijk Museum. «It highlights the significance of Orientalism in French painting.»

While Wolfs declined to estimate the painting’s monetary value, he stressed that its personal story outweighs financial considerations. “It’s very important to be able to give back to this work,” Wolfs said. «It doesn’t erase what happened during the war, but at least some justice can be done, even so many years later.»

The city of Amsterdam, the official owner of the Matisse, is expected to return the painting to the heirs of the Stern family by the end of the year, a spokeswoman for the Stedelijk said.

“The return of works of art, such as the ‘Odalisque’ painting, can mean a lot to victims and is crucial to recognizing the injustices they have suffered,” said Amsterdam’s culture councilor Touria Meliani. “As a city, we have a role and a responsibility in this.”