Voy­age of a Lady

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, mil­lions of art­works and cul­tural ar­ti­facts were stolen by the Nazis. Thou­sands of th­ese ended up in Canada, but only a hand­ful have been repa­tri­ated. This is the story of one

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Blair Mlotek

The story of a Nazi-looted paint­ing’s Hamil­ton so­journ by Blair Mlotek

In 1652, Jo­hannes Cor­nelisz Ver­spronck, a Dutch por­traitist of the Golden Age, painted his Por­trait of a Lady. Three cen­turies later, in Nazi Ger­many, the paint­ing would fig­ure in the midst of a heated bat­tle in the name of an­other lady’s jus­tice—one who was stripped of all that she loved.

Alma Salomon­sohn didn’t want to be­lieve the ru­mours. She re­fused to leave Ber­lin to join her sons in the United States un­til the day her friend, physi­cist Max Planck, came to her door. “If you ever want to see your sons again,” he told her, “you have to leave the coun­try now.”

It was sum­mer 1939. Planck had come to Salomon­sohn’s home in down­town Ber­lin to warn her of Hitler’s plans to shut Ger­many’s bor­ders. Fi­nally con­vinced, Salomon­sohn fled to Lon­don, grab­bing just one small paint­ing, while leav­ing in­struc­tions for the pack­ing and ship­ping of the rest—among them a Rem­brandt, works by Brueghel and Ruis­dael and Ver­spronck’s Por­trait of a Lady. In Septem­ber, the Sec­ond World War be­gan. The crate of paint­ings never ar­rived in Lon­don.

Half a cen­tury later, the Ver­spronck would re­join Salomon­sohn’s fam­ily, but not be­fore it passed through un­named hands and went on an ex­tended Cana­dian so­journ far from its right­ful own­ers. As the Jews of Eastern Europe were in flight or worse, the Nazis plun­dered their homes. This in­cluded art: the Nazis saw the ex­port of im­por­tant art as the theft of Ger­man cul­ture; if a paint­ing was deemed un­wor­thy, it would be im­pounded or burned. Much of this looted art is still lost, and thou­sands of works have ended up within Cana­dian bor­ders—but only a hand­ful, thus far, have been repa­tri­ated.

In 1943, the Al­lied armies formed the Mon­u­ments Men—a group made fa­mous by the 2014 Ge­orge Clooney film—with the mis­sion to pro­tect cul­tural trea­sures from the va­garies of war. Af­ter the armistice, the group was able to re­cover and even­tu­ally repa­tri­ate mil­lions of plun­dered ob­jects—usu­ally to the gov­ern­ments of the coun­tries they were taken from and not to their orig­i­nal own­ers or de­scen­dants. Of­ten th­ese pieces ended up in na­tional col­lec­tions or were sold with­out a trace of pa­per­work. As the stolen paint­ings mi­grated around the world, Jewish sur­vivors started new lives. Art was not top of mind.

Arthur and Alma Salomon­sohn had pur­chased Ver­spronck’s Por­trait of a Lady in 1909. Arthur was a part­ner at the Dis­conto-ge­sellschaft bank, which later merged with Deutsche Bank. The cou­ple en­joyed a large apart­ment in cen­tral Ber­lin as well as a coun­try house, both of which were filled with art. Arthur died in 1930. Later, when Alma fled Ber­lin for Lon­don, the paint­ing was

sold at a Frank­furt auc­tion in 1941, with the pro­ceeds go­ing to Nazi of­fices in Ber­lin-bran­den­burg; the owner iden­ti­fied only with the un­trace­able ini­tials “F.L.” Alma would never see Por­trait of a Lady again. Dur­ing the war, Alma would join her chil­dren in the United States, leav­ing be­hind the wealth she en­joyed in Ber­lin. She changed her name to Alma Solmssen.

In the late ’40s, Solmssen be­gan ef­forts to re­trieve her paint­ings. She com­piled a list of the art­works she had packed be­fore leav­ing Ber­lin and en­listed a lawyer to track them down us­ing pho­to­graphs and a state­ment of con­fir­ma­tion from Carl Ge­orge Heise, di­rec­tor of Kun­sthalle Ham­burg, that he had seen the works at her home. The search proved fruit­less; the fam­ily de­cided to for­get the paint­ings and move on.

The Ver­spronck reap­peared in 1986, when it was pur­chased by Dutch and Flem­ish Old Mas­ter dealer Johnny Van Haeften from an art run­ner with the last name of König. As in 1941, the owner did not want to be known. Van Haeften wasn’t able to sell the Ver­spronck through his Lon­don gallery, so he sent it to Sotheby’s for their Im­por­tant Old Mas­ter Paint­ings auc­tion in New York in June 1987. No ques­tions were asked about the paint­ing’s prove­nance. “The 1980s were a very dif­fer­ent time,” says Lu­cian Sim­mons, head of prove­nance and re­search at Sotheby’s. No pro­cesses were put into place to en­sure the art trad­ing hands had the proper pa­per­work to con­firm own­er­ship.

With funds from its vol­un­teer com­mit­tee, the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton bought the paint­ing for US$58,000 at this auc­tion. They owned a small Dutch col­lec­tion al­ready, but wanted a por­trait to ex­pand it. The work went on to be­come one of the small gallery’s prized pos­ses­sions and was in­cluded in many ex­hi­bi­tions.

1991, Sarah Solmssen was pok­ing around her mother-in-law’s at­tic in Philadel­phia, in search of some­thing to hang in her new home, one she shared with hus­band, Pe­ter, Alma’s great-grand­son. They came across the one paint­ing that Alma had brought with her from Ber­lin to Lon­don. “Sarah, you might like this,” her mother-in-law said. The paint­ing was dark and dirty, had been left out of its frame and was very yel­lowed. It de­picted a coun­try inn, with trav­ellers on horse­back be­ing greeted. Sarah brought it home and hung it in their new mas­ter bed­room, where she would stare at it as she fell asleep each night. A few years later, Pe­ter and Sarah de­cided to get the paint­ing re­stored, and, af­ter drop­ping it off in Paoli, Penn­syl­va­nia, Sarah got a call from the re­storer. “Mrs. Solmssen, do you re­al­ize what you have here?” the re­storer asked her. It was by Adri­aen Jansz van Os­tade, a 17th-cen­tury Dutch painter of peas­ant life who was likely the stu­dent of Frans Hals. Sarah of­ten con­sid­ered the pho­tos she’d seen of Alma’s home in Ber­lin, with paint­ings hung, salon-style, all over the walls. Thoughts of all that Alma lost were “al­ways brew­ing and sim­mer­ing.” The topic of art loot­ing stayed on her radar—she had been read­ing books and keep­ing news­pa­per clip­pings. Sarah knew that Pe­ter’s Omi re­mained an im­por­tant fig­ure in his life, even af­ter her death when he was young. By search­ing for Alma’s paint­ing and learn­ing about her past, she felt that she got a chance to know her. The more she learned, the more she couldn’t get over “the in­jus­tice of it all—this theft on such a grand scale.”

In 1996, Jost von Trott zu Solz, a Ber­lin lawyer fa­mous for work­ing with resti­tu­tion cases, ap­proached the fam­ily. He worked with a cousin of the Solmssens to re­claim their art, and be­came aware that the Solmssens had miss­ing art as well. Sarah and Pe­ter met with von Trott zu Solz in New York, where he ex­plained that a Swiss hedge fund would pay for the his­tor­i­cal re­search in ex­change for a per­cent­age of the paint­ing’s worth. With noth­ing to lose, the Solmssen fam­ily went ahead.

Due to the high fees as­so­ci­ated with get­ting a paint­ing back, per­cent­ages of its worth are of­ten used as pay­ment. For many try­ing to re­cover stolen art, the le­gal costs make pur­su­ing resti­tu­tion pro­hib­i­tive. “There is a class el­e­ment to all this,” Marc Ma­surovsky, who co-founded the Holo­caust Art Resti­tu­tion Project, ex­plains. In some cases, a paint­ing’s worth is not enough to in­ter­est law firms and is never fought for at all. Ma­surovsky says that this is the case for 90 per cent of peo­ple with lost art.

The Solmssens were in the for­tu­nate po­si­tion to af­ford the le­gal fees out of pocket. Sarah be­came the li­ai­son with the lawyers. They sent a list based on Alma’s orig­i­nal let­ter—the first piece, by Ital­ian early Re­nais­sance painter Alesso Bal­dovinetti, hung in Ber­lin’s Na­tional Gallery. When the claim was sent, the gallery handed it right over. Ger­man law is clear with resti­tu­tion: the paint­ing had Alma’s hus­band Arthur’s name burned onto its back—and the Gemälde­ga­lerie had put their stamp right next to it.

No ques­tions were asked about the paint­ing’s prove­nance. “The 1980s were a very dif­fer­ent time,” says Lu­cian Sim­mons, head of prove­nance and re­search at Sotheby’s. No pro­cesses were put into place to en­sure the art trad­ing hands had the proper pa­per­work to con­firm own­er­ship.

The art world be­gan tak­ing the topic of Nazi-looted art se­ri­ously in the 1990s. In 1997, when Ma­surovsky co-founded the Holo­caust Art Resti­tu­tion Project—which con­ducts re­search on looted works, as­sists claimants and seeks im­prove­ment of leg­is­la­tion—the is­sue could no longer be ig­nored. A year later, the Wash­ing­ton Con­fer­ence on Holo­caust-era As­sets saw 44 coun­tries come to­gether to es­tab­lish 11 prin­ci­ples on art resti­tu­tion and prove­nance prac­tices. Each promised to im­ple­ment the de­vel­op­ment of a na­tional process.

Mean­while, Maria Alt­mann, heir of the Bloch-bauers, laid claim to Gus­tav Klimt’s paint­ing of Adele Bloch-bauer, her aunt. The 2015 film Woman in Gold, star­ring He­len Mir­ren as Alt­mann, tells the tale: Alt­mann started a long and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful le­gal bat­tle with Aus­tria for the paint­ing. A Mat­ter of Jus­tice, a con­fer­ence held in Ot­tawa in 2001, ended with a list of rec­om­men­da­tions for Holo­caust-era prop­erty in Canada. Ma­surovsky was in at­ten­dance, and says, “It was one of those rare mo­ments where there was a de­sire from all par­ties to come up with a prod­uct, or at least an out­come.”

If even a small part of the plan made at the 2001 con­fer­ence had been acted upon, he says, it would place Canada “at the fore­front of the artresti­tu­tion move­ment.” Canada only started tak­ing ac­tion in 2013, af­ter Dr. Mario Silva was ap­pointed chair of the In­ter­na­tional Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Al­liance on be­half of Canada.

The Cana­dian Art Mu­seum Di­rec­tors Or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan a project in­volv­ing six of their mem­ber gal­leries. They worked on iden­ti­fy­ing prove­nance gaps, and their re­search en­abled gal­leries to cre­ate best-prac­tices resti­tu­tion guide­lines. Ma­surovsky says that fill­ing in the gaps in prove­nance

is a big job to do on a grant of $191,000, which is how much was al­lo­cated from Cana­dian Her­itage. Moira Mc­caf­frey, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Cana­dian Art Mu­seum Di­rec­tors Or­ga­ni­za­tion, says that they were happy to have the grant and to be able to do this work. “This is a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant project and in an ideal world there would be a lot more money for in­di­vid­ual gal­leries to con­duct prove­nance re­search of their own.” The guide­lines be­came avail­able in June 2017.

Canada also par­tic­i­pated in the con­fer­ence that cul­mi­nated in the Terezin Dec­la­ra­tion of 2009, where the role of the na­tional govern­ment is deemed “essen­tial.” Ac­cord­ing to Ma­surovsky, Canada has only made an “ex­pres­sion of good­will” and, as of yet, has shown an un­will­ing­ness to re­turn stolen prop­erty.

With­out pub­lic pol­icy, in­sti­tu­tions re­main un­ac­count­able. Out­side of Cana­dian com­mon law, there is no le­gal obli­ga­tion for a gallery to give back paint­ings, and there­fore no con­se­quences. The art mar­ket and gal­leries must re­al­ize, he says, that what they are work­ing with “has a taint of geno­cide on it.”

In 2003, von Trott zu Solz, the Solmssens’ lawyer, sent a let­ter to the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton claim­ing Ver­spronck’s Lady be­longed to the Solmssens. Ev­ery­one at the gallery was shocked.

Imke Gie­len, the lawyer cur­rently work­ing on re­triev­ing the Solmssens’ paint­ings, ex­plains that the first thing that needs to be es­tab­lished is the cir­cum­stances of how the piece be­came lost. Even with all the proof, the gallery needed to be con­vinced that this paint­ing was the same one that left Alma’s hands in Ber­lin.

Chris­tine Braun, col­lec­tions man­ager at the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton, says that it is nor­mal for resti­tu­tion to take a while. A large, grey ac­cor­dion file marked “Ver­spronck” at the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton at­tests to the back-and-forth re­search and cor­re­spon­dence con­ducted over the years be­tween the gallery and von Trott zu Solz.

Von Trott zu Solz died a few years af­ter send­ing the first let­ter to the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton, and the case ran cold for about five years.

Dur­ing this time, the gallery didn’t reach out. In 2011, Sarah pushed the firm to do some­thing, and Gie­len started cor­re­spond­ing with the gallery again. A new cu­ra­tor, Bene­dict Leca, be­gan at the gallery with a stack of high-piled pa­pers, all about the Ver­spronck. The Art Gallery of Hamil­ton no­ti­fied Pe­ter and Sarah in 2015 that the paint­ing would be re­turned. Leca says that it was clear what had to be done. It’s a red flag when there’s a 30-year gap in a paint­ing’s his­tory. He be­lieves you “can’t be on the wrong side of his­tory.”

Braun and Leca have the same an­swer when asked if they were up­set to see the paint­ing go: “It was the right thing to do.” Leca main­tains that al­though a long time passed be­tween the ini­tial claim and the resti­tu­tion, the gallery took all the right steps.

The Þght is far from over for the Solmssens. They con­tinue to look for Arthur and Alma’s paint­ings, and right now their fo­cus is on a Brueghel that is at a mu­seum in Seat­tle.

But for now, they have their Lady. While the gallery pro­cessed the doc­u­ments for the por­trait’s re­turn, Sarah re­searched how to have the work shipped: it would cost $5,000—ex­pen­sive. They fig­ured they could just pick the work up. As Sarah ex­plained to Pe­ter: “We have a Yukon De­nali— let’s just lay her in the back.” Pe­ter thought she was crazy, but they did it. The Solmssens pulled into the ser­vice bay of the Art Gallery of Hamil­ton one morn­ing in July 2015.

The 400-year-old paint­ing sat wrapped in the back of the car. Pe­ter, Sarah and the Ver­spronck went first to pick up Sarah’s par­ents in north­ern Michi­gan. Sarah wanted to stop in Wis­con­sin, where some of their old horses still lived. The route took them across Lake Michi­gan, Ver­spronck’s Lady in the hold of the ferry. Sarah said good­bye to an old horse, who died a few months later. They went on their way, leav­ing the work in their car in garages deemed safe, or car­ry­ing the work into ho­tels. It sat wrapped un­til get­ting to the Solmssens’ sec­ond house in New Mex­ico, where they keep an or­ganic farm.

They brought the work into the study and laid it on the car­pet, cut­ting open the thick pack­ag­ing with an X-acto knife. With tears in her eyes, Sarah lifted the paint­ing up while Pe­ter snapped a photo. Tak­ing her place on the wall next to some of the art she kept com­pany with in Alma and Arthur’s apart­ment in Ber­lin, Ver­spronck’s was fi­nally home. ■

There is no real le­gal obli­ga­tion for a gallery to give back paint­ings, and there­fore no con­se­quences. The art mar­ket and gal­leries must re­al­ize, as Marc Ma­surovsky, co-founder of the Holo­caust Art Resti­tu­tion Project, says, that what they are work­ing with “has a taint of geno­cide on it.”

Everett Parker Les­ley, Jr. (left) of the Mon­u­ments Men re­turn­ing Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Er­mine (ca. 1489–90) to its home in Kraków, Poland, in 1946 COUR­TESY MON­U­MENTS MEN FOUN­DA­TION

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