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Stedelijk Museum Will Return Matisse Painting to Jewish Heirs

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam will return a Henri Matisse painting to the heirs of a Jewish textile manufacturer who sold the piece while fleeing Nazi Germany.

The institution announced on June 25 that the Dutch Restitutions Committee had published its binding advice on the restitution of Matisse’ Odalisque (1920/21) to the legal successors of Albert Stern. The committee concluded “it is sufficiently plausible that the sale of the painting was connected to the measures taken by the occupying forces against Jewish members of the population and arose from a desire for self-preservation.”

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Stedelijk Museum Will Return Matisse Painting to Jewish Heirs

Stern’s heirs were represented by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The organization said in a statement that the investigation it conducted “conclusively demonstrated that the family was subjected to persecution from 1933 onwards, first in Germany where they lived and then from 1937 in the Netherlands where they had fled and where they were gradually stripped of their possessions and their livelihood. They made several unsuccessful efforts to escape and eventually were forced to sell their remaining possessions to try to survive.”

Before the Nazis took power, Stern’s career as a textile manufacturer in Germany was incredibly successful, especially his company’s retail sales and exports of ready-to-wear women’s clothing.

Albert’s wife Marie had studied art and painting before their marriage, and was responsible for the couple’s collection of modern and contemporary art.

The statement from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe said the Nazis took Stern’s business, its building, the family’s home, its possessions, and most of its assets, pushing him and his loved ones into exile. The Matisse was sold to the Stedelijk Museum as part of the family’s last efforts to flee Europe in 1941.

Odalisque had been in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum since then, under the ownership of the Municipality of the City of Amsterdam.

The museum acknowledged in its statement that Stern and his family were subjected to persecution because of their Jewish heritage, and that they were “gradually stripped of their possessions and means of livelihood.” The family, formerly based in Berlin, emigrated to the Netherlands between 1936 and 1937.

As the funds from the sale of Odalisque were needed for the Stern family’s attempts to flee, the Restitutions Committee ruled “this was an involuntary loss of possession due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.”

Albert Stern and his wife were eventually deported to different concentration camps. Albert died in January 1945 at Laufen. Marie survived and emigrated to the United Kingdom after World War II.

“The return of the Matisse is a moving and overwhelming moment for us all,” the Stern heirs said in a statement, calling the decision “symbolic justice” for Albert. “Our grandparents loved art and music and theatre, it was the centre of their lives. In the few years we had with our grandmother after the war, she transmitted that love to us, and it has enriched our lives ever since.”

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam director Rein Wolfs said in a press statement that there had been questions about the provenance of the Matisse painting since it had published research about works from its collection around the war period in 2013. He called the restitution a “step forward.”