After N.J. detour, painting taken by Nazis is returned

Suzanne Delehanty was planning to use a 16th century portrait of a young boy for an exhibition this spring, but her plans changed when  the director of the Zimmerli Art Museum on the campus of Rutgers-New Brunswick got a call she never expected.

A man named Simon Goodman told her the painting had belonged to his grandparents, Fritz and Louise Gutmann. They were prominent Jews in The Netherlands who made a deal with the Nazis in 1942: our art collection for our lives. They shipped nine of their best paintings to Berlin.

The Nazis did not honor their agreement; the Gutmanns were sent to concentration camps where they were killed.

Only eight of those paintings made it to Berlin. The ninth mysteriously disappeared.

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The man on the other end of the phone told Delehanty that her “Portrait of a Young Man,” painted in 1509 by Hans Baldung Grier, was that missing painting.

Delehanty never thought she would have to deal with Nazi reparations.

“My own specialty has been modern and contemporary art, which is art made since 1945,” said Delehanty, who became director of the Zimmerli in 2009. “So it would have been works of art made after World War II rather than before.”

Although relatively unknown now, the artist Grier was one of the most prominent of his day. It is not known who the handsome subject of the painting is, although some speculate it may be the artist himself.

The painting was donated to Rutgers by a prominent private collector named Rudolf Heinemann of New York. But how did he get it? A Rutgers lawyer researched the painting’s provenance.

“In the later ’40s and early ’50s, the picture appeared in the art market in London,” said Delehanty. “It seems to have been sold to a New York art dealer, [Paul] Rosenberg, and somehow transferred to Rudolf Heinemann, or he bought it — we don’t have the papers on that. And then Heinemann gave it to Rutgers in 1959.”

A year after that first phone call from Goodman, Rutgers handed over the painting to the Gutmann descendants, who will sell it at auction at Christie’s.

For 20 years, Simon Goodman and his father before him have been relentless in tracking down the collection. Their mission has changed the way the issue of stolen art is rectified. After the Goodmans’ bitter court fight with the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996 over a pastel by Edgar Degas, the U.S. State Department established the Commission for Looted Art in Europe to handle such transactions.

The American Association of Museums now has policies about establishing ownership and transfer of work looted by the Nazis. More than 4,000 objects have been returned to descendants of war victims.

Delehanty says dealing with the Goodmans was smooth.

“You feel a great sense of joy and happiness that you can do something small to contribute to turning to good a really horrible moment in 20th century history – or in human history, for that matter,” she said.

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