Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and William F. Sweeny Jr., the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, announced on September 12, the return to its rightful owner of a painting looted by the Nazis during World War II. The painting, Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin, painted in 1919 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (the “Renoir”), was stolen by the Nazis from a bank vault in Paris in 1941.
Ms. Sylvie Sulitzer, the last remaining heir of her grandfather Alfred Weinberger, a prominent art collector in pre-war Paris from whom the Renoir was stolen, saw the painting for the first time when it was unveiled at a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. It remained on display until September 16th .
“Today, as we celebrate the just return of this painting to its rightful owner, we also remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust and reaffirm our commitment to ensure that the words ‘never forget, never again’ never ring hollow. Hopefully this event brings some measure of justice to Madame Sylvie Sultizer and her family.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said, “The Museum of Jewish Heritage is proud to be the venue for this restitution, in furtherance of our mission as a living memorial to the Holocaust. We applaud the tireless efforts of those who worked to see this painting justly restored to Sylvie Sulitzer and the Weinberger family.”
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeny Jr. said, “The atrocities that took place during World War II at the hands of the Nazis cannot be summed up in a few words. They murdered, tortured, and plundered during their attempt to take over Europe and the world. In the process, they also carried out smaller acts of evil behavior, stealing hundreds of thousands of these pieces of priceless artwork. Some of those pieces are lost to our culture forever. However, we take a bit of pride in returning a painting looted during the war, and helping repair some of the destruction decades ago.”
Also participating in the ceremony was former District Attorney for New York County and Chairman Emeritus of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Robert M. Morgenthau who said, “All of us who have never forgotten about the Nazi lootings are grateful for the United States Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s interest in seeing that the stolen art is returned to its rightful owners.”
During World War II, the Nazis created a division known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (the “ERR”) in order to “study” Jewish life and culture as part of the Nazis’ propagandist mission against the Jews. Principally, the ERR confiscated artworks and other cultural holdings of the enemies of the Reich on a massive scale, and meticulously registered and identified those artworks – even photographing them – thereby leaving behind a detailed record of the works that they stole.
In December 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, the ERR seized the Renoir, along with numerous other works, from a bank vault where Alfred Weinberger had stored his collection when he fled Paris at the outset of the war. In the decades that followed, Mr. Weinberger sought to recover his property, registering his claim to the Renoir with the French restitution authorities in 1947 and the German restitution authorities in 1958.
The Renoir resurfaced after the war at an art sale in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1975. It subsequently found its way to London, where it was sold again in 1977, and then appeared at a sale in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1999.
Ultimately, the Renoir found its way to Christie’s Gallery in New York, where it was put up for auction by a private collector in 2013. It was then that Ms. Sulitzer learned of the pending sale and made a claim to the work as part of her grandfather’s collection. Christie’s alerted the FBI, and ultimately the purported owner of the work voluntarily agreed to relinquish its claim. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are now returning the painting to Ms. Sulitzer.
The case is being handled by the Office’s Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Noah Falk is in charge of the case.