A painting stolen by Nazis during World War II is being returned to its rightful owners, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced today. The Dutch artist Salomon Koninck painted the artwork, A Scholar Sharpening His Quill, in 1639—and until it landed at Christie's auction house two years ago by way of Chile, the painting had been lost for 76 years.
During World War II, the Nazis' horrifying path of destruction included the confiscation, burning, and looting of countless pieces of art throughout Europe. They had a division known as Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, that seized significant cultural works owned by Jewish citizens. The ERR took a particular interest in the Schloss Collection, a notable private collection of Dutch and Flemish art helmed by the descendants of Adolphe Schloss, a Jewish art collector who died before the war. Knowing that the Nazis would be searching for the collection, Schloss's heirs moved it from Paris to a township further south, Château de Chambon, for safekeeping.
But Adolf Hitler knew about the trove of art pieces, and wanted it for his museum in Linz. When the Nazis invaded France, they strong-armed informants and local officials into tracking them down, and eventually did. Nazis posing as policemen looted the collection, according to a history that the family compiled. The Scholar painting was among the 262 pieces of art they took from the collection. Eventually, the painting ended up at Hitler's Führerbau building in Munich, but was one of the many artworks looted from there, too, during the brief period between the Third Reich's fall and the Allied Troop's imminent arrival. Many of those works' whereabouts have been lost to time.
Then, in November 2017, a Chilean art dealer tried to sell the Scholar painting through Christie's. A Christie's spokesperson, who confirmed the news to Gothamist on Tuesday, says that the auction house discovered the painting's origins when it had been taken in on consignment and shipped to New York. Christie's Old Master Paintings and Restitution teams investigated and determined it was a match to the one described as missing from the Schloss family collection. Christie's then stopped the pre-sale process and told both the consignor and Schloss's family, but the art dealer "demanded" that the painting be returned to Chile. At that point, the auction house turned over the case to the FBI's Art Crime Team.
The art dealer later said she had inherited the painting from her father, who had bought it in the 1950s from Walter Andreas Hofer, the art dealer who had a huge hand in helping the Nazis confiscate Jewish artistic and cultural works during the war, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office. "The campaign of cultural plunder that the Nazis directed against millions of innocent Jews was sadistic and unjust," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. "That is why restitution in this case is more than returning a material good, but restoring a physical part of lost heritage. After nearly 80 years of being lost, this painting has been found and we are returning it to the Schloss family."