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Eglon van der Neer, Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior, 1665-67, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Eglon van der Neer, Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior, 1665-67, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON MFA SETTLES VAN DER NEER CASE

June 27, 2011

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The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, has settled with the family of a German art dealer whose Eglon van der Neer painting, Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior (1665-67), was looted by Nazis when he was sent to Auschwitz during World War II. The museum agreed to pay an undisclosed restitution to the family and is keeping the painting in its collection. (The record price paid for van der Neer at auction is more than $1.4 million, set in London in 1989. According to journalist Paul Jeromack, an Old Masters expert, said the lady's "dour expression" made this one worth $1.2 million, tops.)

Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior depicts an affluent couple in a room with a painting of Venus over the mantel and a Persian carpet on the table, now hangs in one of the MFA’s European art galleries.

The painting had originally belonged to German art dealer Walter Westfeld (1889-1945), who opened his art gallery in Elberfeld (present-day Wuppertal) in 1920. In 1935, the Reichs Chamber of Fine Arts banned him, as a Jew, from working as an art dealer, and he was forced to close his gallery in 1936. In all likelihood, Westfeld was forced to sell off his stock through the Galerie Kleucker in Düsseldorf, which was owned by a non-Jewish friend and associate.

During the following years, Westfeld is believed to have continued to sell art in secret, some through Kleucker, and also smuggled artworks into France and the Netherlands. Some of these works were eventually seized, and the fate of others cannot be determined. Exactly what happened to Portrait of a Man and Woman is unknown, though, as the Boston MFA research concludes, "it is difficult to imagine a scenario by which he sold the painting voluntarily."

In 1938, Westfeld was arrested, and all the artworks in his possession were auctioned in Cologne in 1939; the catalogue of the sale, which did not include the van der Neer painting, was labeled "forced sale. . .  from a non-Aryan collection." Westfeld remained in custody at various prisons before being deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and in January 1943 to Auschwitz, where he died.

The MFA Boston purchased the van der Neer painting in December 1941 from E. and A. Silberman Galleries in New York, and was told by the dealer that the work had been "brought to this country by a refugee some time ago." The gallery is no longer in existence, and its records have not been located and are believed to have been destroyed. 

The MFA began a systematic review of the provenance of its collection in 1998, launching a provenance section of its website in 2000. Though the van der Neer was posted there, it was not until 2004 that the dealer’s nephew, Fred Westfeld, saw the picture online and contacted the museum.

In 2010, the MFA hired its first full-time provenance researcher, a position now held by Victoria Reed, who conducted the research into the Westfeld van der Neer. Since undertaking its researches, the museum has identified three other Nazi-era acquisitions with tainted provenance, which have since been returned to heirs of their original owners: Landscape with Burning City (ca. 1500) by Herri Met De Bles; Roses in a Glass Vase (1890) by Henri Fantin-Latour; and A Nude Man reclining, holding a club (ca. 1526) by Albrecht Dürer.

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