exhibition at the Bruce Museum: Reclaimed, Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker

The circle of art


“I’m a believer that beautiful paintings should be seen by people,” she says. “Basically, what’s in the exhibit are works that we love.”

Basicaly all Goudstikker paintings were in public exhibitions. Owing to Marei von Saher (she never even met Goudstikker) many of the Goudstikker paintings have disappeared in private collections because Von Saher put them up at auctions.

Ton Cremers


Georgette Gouveia | The Journal News

There’s a painting in the office of Peter Sutton, executive director of the Bruce Museum, that is about to be moved downstairs as part of a new exhibit.

The work is Jan Steen’s 1671 oil “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia,” which tells the story of how Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so the Greeks could sail off to fight Troy. Iphigenia embraces her fate, understanding that the only thing she can control is her heroic response to it.

Marei von Saher, the owner of the painting, knows all about fate.

“You can’t escape it,” says von Saher, a Greenwich resident. “What is meant to be is meant to be.”

In the spring of 1940, her father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker – a man she never met – was the premier dealer in Old Masters in Amsterdam.

Goudstikker (HOWCH sticker) had everything – a glamorous wife, the soprano Désirée von Halban Kurz; a baby son, Eduard, affectionately called “Edo”; a gallery whose visitors included Queen Wilhelmina, and a country estate, Castle Nyenrode, where he could indulge his love of cooking and entertaining.

Then the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, and it was all gone – the gallery, the estate, some 1,400 paintings, including Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Days after the invasion, he fled with his family aboard the SS Bodegraven only to die when he fell through an uncovered hatch at night after coming onto the deck for some fresh air. He was 42.

Fate, however, has a way of coming full circle.

In 2006, the Dutch government agreed to restore to von Saher – the widow of Goudstikker’s only child – 200 of the paintings looted from the gallery by the Nazis that had wound up in Dutch national collections after the war. The challenge by von Saher and her younger daughter, Charlène, is one of the largest restitution awards in art history.

Viewers can see some of the fruits of that struggle in “Reclaimed: Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker,” which opens Saturday at the Bruce – exactly 68 years after the Nazis invaded Holland.

Among the works are the classically dramatic “Iphigenia,” which Sutton calls “one of the most important Dutch history paintings”; Jan van der Heyden’s charming “View of Nyenrode Castle on the Vecht”; and Ferdinand Bol’s sumptuously textured “Louise Marie Gonzaga de Nevers (1611-1667), Queen of Poland?”

The works illustrate the depth and breadth of a dealer whose taste influenced the art scene on both sides of the Atlantic in the period between the two world wars. Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Flute,” part of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of J. P. Wolff,” at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, were among the legitimate Goudstikker sales.

For Charlène von Saher, however, pursuing works the Nazis took or sold in her grandfather’s name “has never just been about the art. … I did it, because something was stolen from my family.”

She is sitting next to her mother at a round table in Sutton’s office, opposite where the “Iphigenia” temporarily hangs. They are strikingly different and similar. Both have the long, lean lines of dancers. A former figure-skating champion, Marei von Saher still teaches the sport. Manhattanite Charlène von Saher, an Olympian at Lillehammer in 1994 and a former skating instructor, sells real estate in Connecticut, where her older sister, Chantal, and Chantal’s daughter live.

More important, Charlène is her mother’s partner in tracking down the hundreds of Goudstikker holdings that are still unaccounted for, bringing, she says, some helpful generational distance to the still emotionally raw issue of her family’s history.

Besides the paintings returned by the Dutch government, there are 36 other works that have been restored to the family from various museums and collections. A claim is still pending, Marei von Saher says, against the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., for two life-size paintings of Adam and Eve by the early 16th-century artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.

“Charlène and I started as a team,” Marei von Saher says. “We persevered. … I have learned the meaning of perseverance.”

“If you believe in something, you can’t give up,” her daughter says.

It was a 1997 phone call from Dutch investigative journalist Pieter den Hollander – who would publish “The Goudstikker Case” a year later – that set the von Sahers on the path of perseverance. Until then, Marei von Saher says, she knew little of her father-in-law’s accomplishments and tragic end.

“My mother-in-law did not want to open up a chapter that was painful to her,” she says. “We moved to this country from England to start a new life. I had two beautiful little girls. The past was the past.”

But the past also is the floating country, whose griefs can resurface at any moment. Summering in the Netherlands with her grandmother, Charlène remembers driving around the properties Goudstikker once owned and asking in childlike innocence why the family no longer lived there. Her grandmother would only say sadly that they couldn’t afford them after the war.

And what did she tell her granddaughters about Goudstikker?

“She’d say, ‘He would’ve loved you girls so much,” Charlène von Saher says.

Den Hollander’s research enabled the von Sahers to take a fuller measure of the man.

The reporter came to see the family and took Charlène to the National Archives in Washington D.C., where she was stunned to discover scores of documents with her grandmother’s name as well as that of Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command.

When the Goudstikkers fled in 1940, Jacques Goudstikker gave power of attorney to his best friend, the lawyer Dr. A. Sternheim. But Sternheim suffered a heart attack on the day of the invasion, fell off his bicycle and died.

That made it even easier for the covetous Göring to set up dummy sales of the Goudstikker paintings he wanted and have front man Alois Miedl run the gallery as if nothing had changed. After the war, Goudstikker’s widow tried to recoup as much of the family’s losses as possible.

“A lot of things were restituted,” says Peter C. Sutton, the Susan E. Lynch executive director and CEO of the Bruce. “What the Dutch government didn’t look into were the coerced sales by Göring. They took those sales to be legitimate.”

The family, however, had a secret weapon, a small black notebook containing an inventory of most of the gallery’s holdings that Goudstikker took with him when he fled.

Armed with the notebook and den Hollander’s research, the von Sahers hired Dutch and New York attorneys and began the process of filing reclamation papers. When the suit was settled in 2006, Marei von Saher turned to Sutton – an expert in Northern Baroque art – to mount an exhibit.

Though more than 100 of the works were auctioned at Christie’s last year, Marei von Saher always wanted to share the reclaimed works and her father-in-law’s achievements in some way with the wider world.

“I’m a believer that beautiful paintings should be seen by people,” she says. “Basically, what’s in the exhibit are works that we love.”

Museum Security Network / Museum Security Consultancy
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