Norwegian museum agrees to return painting by Matisse to Rosenberg’s heirs

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Looted in France by the Nazis, the work was acquired by shipping magnate and his wife, a famous ice skater

By Hannah McGivern. Web only
Published online: 24 March 2014

A Norwegian museum, Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter (HOK), announced last week that it is returning a key work from its collection, Henri Matisse’s Woman in Blue in front of a Fireplace, 1937, “without conditions” to the descendents of the French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, after determining that it was looted by the Nazis in 1941.

Niels Onstad, the shipping magnate and collector, bought the painting from the Galerie Henri Bénézit in Paris in 1950, donating it to the museum he founded in 1968 with his wife Sonja Henie, the figure skating champion turned Hollywood film star.

The work’s looted provenance was discovered in 2012 when a member of the Rosenberg family identified it in the catalogue of a major Matisse exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Paul Rosenberg fled France in 1940, leaving behind an extensive art collection. The painting by Matisse was part of a cache of 162 works by modern masters, including Picasso and Braque, confiscated by the Nazi looting agency, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. It passed through the hands of two dealers, Gustav Rochlitz and Paul Pétridès, before it was sold to Henri Bénézit and subsequently acquired by Onstad.

In a statement, the museum’s chairman, Halvor Stenstadvold, said an “extensive investigation of the case has led to the decision that the return is justified”. The museum restated its “unwavering position that both Niels Onstad, and subsequently HOK, acquired the painting in good faith” but announced that it “has chosen to adhere to international conventions” by unconditionally returning the work.

Christopher Marinello, the chairman of the London-based firm Art Recovery International, handled the family’s claim to retrieve the painting.

As the first instance of Nazi-looted art restitution in Norway, the case may set a precendent for other Norwegian institutions. HOK has called for the creation of a national committee to investigate the provenance of works in public collections across the country, following the example set by similar programmes in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

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