The Met’s Van Gogh Controversy: Allegations of Secrecy, Nazi Looting, and a Battle for Art’s History
Edited by: Fern Sidman
In a stunning legal battle that has gripped the art world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City finds itself at the center of allegations involving a Van Gogh masterpiece, claims of Nazi looting, secrecy, and a century-long cover-up, as was reported in the New York Post on Wednesday. The controversy has raised questions about the provenance of art and the responsibility of museums to uncover the truth about their collections.
At the heart of the dispute is Van Gogh’s painting titled “The Olive Picking,” a work created by the Dutch artist in 1889, just before his tragic death. However, the Post report indicated that the ownership history of this masterpiece is far from straightforward, leading to a contentious legal showdown between the museum and the heirs of a Jewish family who once possessed the artwork.
The narrative begins in 1935 when the painting was purchased by Hedwig Stern, a Jewish collector and doctor’s wife, from Munich’s Heinrich Thannhauser Gallery, adding to her extensive collection of Impressionist art, according to the Post report. But the rising tide of Nazi persecution in 1936 forced Stern, her husband, and their six children to flee for safety, the Post report added. Tragically, the Gestapo prevented them from taking “The Olive Picking” with them.
In a desperate bid to secure their escape, Stern ordered her lawyer to sell the painting, along with a Renoir, through the same gallery. As was reported by the Post, the Nazis seized the 55,000 Reichsmarks from the sale, while Stern and her family eventually found refuge in Berkeley, California.
After World War II, the Post report noted that Stern attempted to recover the looted painting but was met with unsuccessful efforts in Munich and Washington. This turbulent period marked the beginning of a convoluted ownership history for “The Olive Picking.”
In 1948, Justin Thannhauser, son of the Munich gallery owner, brought the painting to New York and sold it to Vincent Astor, whose father, John Jacob Astor IV, tragically perished on the Titanic during its now infamous voyage from England to New York across the North Atlantic, as was reported by the Post. Vincent Astor later married socialite Brooke Russell in 1953.
In 1955, Brooke Astor enlisted the Manhattan gallery Knoedler & Co. to sell Van Gogh’s masterpiece to a museum. Theodore Rousseau, the Met’s curator, approved the purchase for $125,000, despite Knoedler being on the State Department’s “red flag” list of dealers in looted Jewish art, as was noted in the Post report. “The Olive Picking” was also listed separately as looted art because Hedwig Stern had made efforts to recover it after the war.
What makes this case particularly intriguing is Theodore Rousseau’s role in the acquisition of the painting. Rousseau, a former “Monuments Man,” was part of the elite unit tasked with tracing and recovering Nazi-looted art as Allied forces defeated Hitler’s regime, according to the Post report. As a US Navy officer, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, and investigated Nazi art theft until 1946. Given his extensive knowledge of looted art, Stern’s descendants contend that Rousseau would have known the painting’s true history.
“He was one of the world experts on looted art,” the Stern family contends, according to the Post report.
Speaking to the Post, Michael Gross, author of “Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art” said: “Looted Nazi art was all over the art market at that point. The dissection of provenance was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now,” he said.
It was a period when looted Nazi art permeated the art market, complicating the assessment of a work’s origins and history.
The controversy took a clandestine turn in 1972 when, according to the Stern family, Rousseau arranged a secretive sale of “The Olive Picking” through the Marlborough Galleries. The Post report indicated that the transaction remained concealed for months, only to be later condemned as “a breach of public trust” by the Art Dealers Association of America. At the time, the Met claimed it was selling a “lesser work” to fund the purchase of a $5.5 million Velazquez painting. However, the Post noted that the Stern family disputes this narrative, asserting that the Velazquez purchase was funded in part by Brooke Astor’s contributions in 1971.
The “lesser work” that the Met was selling was also a Van Gogh work — “Wooden Huts Among Olive Trees and Cypresses” and eventually sold at auction in 2021 for more than $71 million, as was reported by the Post.
Rousseau died in 1973. The enigmatic sale of the painting in 1972 and Rousseau’s involvement has given rise to allegations of secrecy and cover-up. The Met, it is claimed, ordered the sealing of Rousseau’s archive until 2073, a move that the Stern family argues will prevent the museum from revealing the truth about the Van Gogh for decades, as indicated in the Post report.
The ownership of “The Olive Picking” remains ambiguous, with the apparent buyer in 1972 being Greek shipping heir Basil Goulandris and his wife, Elise, as was noted by the Post. The Goulandris couple accumulated a staggering $3 billion art collection before their passing.
The controversy reached new heights when the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation included “The Olive Picking” in its 2019 catalogue for a newly opened Athens museum, as stated in the Post report. Astonishingly, the catalogue did not disclose the painting’s ownership history or its connection to Hedwig Stern.
Now, nine heirs of Hedwig Stern, including her grandchildren and step-grandchildren residing in various locations, are pursuing legal action against both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, the Post article said. They are determined to reclaim the painting and uncover the truth about its tumultuous past.
As the lawsuit unfolds, it raises profound questions about the ethical responsibilities of museums to investigate the provenance of their collections, the secrecy surrounding art transactions, and the enduring impact of Nazi art looting on the art world. The case of “The Olive Picking” serves as a poignant reminder that behind every masterpiece lies a complex and often untold history, waiting to be unveiled.