01 May 2011

The strange odyssey of Mme. Stumpf and her daughter

Madame Stumpf and Her Daughter
Source: NGA
The National Gallery of Washington in Washington, DC, holds more than a dozen paintings that were once looted by the Germans during World War II and have since been restituted to their rightful owners. One of those paintings is “Mme. Stumpf and her Daughter”, by Jean-Baptiste Corot, stolen from the Paris art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. The painting appears in his Floirac inventory as “Portrait de Mme. Stumph née Elisa Monet et sa fille” and bears his inventory number No. 623 and was painted in 1872.

According to Paul Rosenberg, he had stashed away this painting together with many others at a small château in a southwestern French town called Floirac-la Souys, in the district of the Gironde.

In his own words: “On September 18, 1940, a group of German gendarmes and policemen, accompanied by an expert from Paris, whose name I do not known, took possession of the paintings packed at Castel Floirac and loaded them in motor trucks.” The German gentlemen were part of so-called Geheime Feldpolizei units (GFP) working under orders of the German Embassy in Paris. In November 1940, the German Embassy was forced to cede to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) all of the art objects that it had forcibly removed from Jewish owners who had fled France. The works were deposited at the Louvre and from there at the Jeu de Paume.

The ERR staff at the Jeu de Paume inventoried a segment of the Paul Rosenberg collection in three lots—Floirac (P.R.), Bordeaux (Rosenberg-Bernstein Bordeaux), and Paris (Rosenberg Paris). But, being the disorganized lot that they could be, the ERR staff comingled some of the works, not that it ultimately mattered. Hence, Mme. Stumpf ended up as Rosenberg-Bernstein Bordeaux Nr. 27 (“Mutter und Kind”), although the painting had not been seized in Bordeaux. Interestingly, the inventory was drawn up in 1942, a year after the painting had already been recycled on the Paris art market.

Rosenberg Bernstein-Bordeaux 27 Öl auf Leinwand
Source: NARA via ERR Project
“Mme. Stumpf and her daughter” was the subject of the first exchange of paintings between Hermann Goering and dealers such as Rochlitz who obtained it from Goering on 3 March 1941 as part of a lot of 11 Impressionist paintings. Rochlitz provided Goering with two Old Masters—one by Jan Weenix and another from Northern Italy. He turned around and provided it to a man named Zachariah Birtchansky. Together with his brother, Birtchansky operated from several addresses in Paris, including the rue Royale. Although of Jewish descent, the pair had established itself as art brokers on the Paris art scene for many years prior to the Second World War and had cultivated shady relationships with a number of unsavory pro-Nazi art dealers, especially Gustav Rochlitz, Hans Wendland, and Karl Haberstock.

Hans Wendland, characterized as the most prolific art dealing operator working for the Nazi government in Western Europe, paid a visit to Birtchansky in 1941 and left with Rosenberg’s Corot painting. He consigned the painting with several others from the Paul Rosenberg collection at a Swiss gallery named Fischer, whose owner was Theodor Fischer, and was based in Lucerne, Switzerland. Fischer, too willing to transact in works of dubious provenance, sold the painting to Dr. Raeber of Basel, another recipient of looted works from France.

The Corot painting was found, repatriated to France, and restituted to Paul Rosenberg.

Decades later, in 1965, Madame Stumpf and her daughter was in the hands of Alexandre Rosenberg, son of Paul Rosenberg, who had his own gallery in New York City not too far from East 79th Street and Madison Avenue. Alexandre’s claim to fame was to have been part of the French resistance unit that intercepted the infamous train of looted art that had left Paris on 1 August 1944, heading for Nikolsburg. To his great surprise, he discovered a great number of his father’s paintings on that train. Back to New York…

Eugene Thaw, the New York art expert, bought the painting from Rosenberg who sold it to Rudolf Heinemann, international man of mystery, close partner of Knoedler’s, and the brains behind the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection. Heinemann turned around and sold part interests in the painting to a number of collectors including Sir Geoffrey Agnew. Within months, Agnew had sold the painting to Ailsa Mellon Bruce for $275,000. Ironically, the transaction to Bruce had been the brainchild of John Walker, then director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where the Corot masterpiece eventually ended up.