The Metropolitan Museum of Art is being accused of “secretly” selling a stolen Van Gogh masterpiece to Jews fleeing the Nazis and trying to orchestrate a cover-up designed to last 100 years.
The museum is being sued by a Jewish family who owned “The Olive Picking” before World War II and wants it back. It could be worth $70 million.
The painting was purchased by the Met in 1956 from Brooke Astor, the socialite who died at age 105 in 2007, then was secretly sold in 1972 and disappeared from public view.
It only appeared in 2019 in the catalog of a newly opened gallery in Athens, Greece.
That breakthrough allowed the family of Jewish collector Hedwig Stern, who died in 1987, to piece together what they now allege had happened.
Now nine of Stern’s heirs are suing both the Met and the Greek museum’s operators, the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, in federal court in Northern California for his return, saying they are victims of decades of cover-up and lies.
Hedwig Stern (left) and her husband, Fritz (right), purchased the Van Gogh in 1935, the year this photograph was taken, when they were on vacation in Locarno, Switzerland.
The Met is fighting the case, saying it had no idea the work was looted. The nine plaintiffs include Stern’s grandchildren and grandchildren, who now live in Oakland and Los Angeles, California, Washington state and Israel. His attorney declined to comment.
The case threatens to open the Met’s secret files on one of its most famous curators, former “Monument Man” Theodore Rousseau, who bought and sold Van Gogh.
Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Olive Gathering” was in the Met’s collection until 1972, when it was quietly removed. Now, the family of a Jewish woman who was forced to leave him behind when she fled Nazi Germany is suing, saying the Met covered up its trafficking in looted art.
Stern and his family lived a wealthy life in Munich and exhibited art in their home. But they were forced to flee Nazi persecution and were unable to take their works of art, including a Van Gogh and a Renoir.
Van Gogh, seen in a self-portrait, painted “The Olive Picking” a few months before his death. It was one of 15 in a series inspired by the annual harvest in Provence. De Agostini via Getty Images
Socialite Brooke Astor and her husband, Vincent, whose portrait she was photographed in front of, once owned the Van Gogh. Vincent Astor bought it in New York after World War II. AP
“The Olive Picking,” painted by the Dutch artist in 1889, just before his death, was purchased in 1935 by Stern, an heiress and wife of a doctor, from the Heinrich Thannhauser Gallery in Munich, adding it to his collection of Impressionists.
But when she, her husband and their six children tried to flee the rising wave of Nazi persecution in 1936, the Gestapo prevented them from taking “The Olive Picking.”
He ordered his lawyer to sell it along with a Renoir in the same gallery. The Nazis simply kept the 55,000 Reichsmarks; Stern and his family found safety in Berkeley, California.
Theodore Rousseau was part of the Monuments Men, a unit created to recover art looted by the Nazis, before becoming one of the Met’s most influential curators. The Sterns claim that he must have known Van Gogh’s story. Men and Women Monuments Foundation
Stern was a victim of Hitler’s persecution and was forced to flee for her life with her husband and six children. They found refuge in the United States, but her descendants say the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York disappointed them. Bettmann Archive
In 1948, Thannhauser’s son Justin took the painting to New York and sold it to Vincent Astor, whose financier father, John Jacob Astor IV, had died on the Titanic, and who in 1953 married socialite Brooke Russell. .
In 1955, Brooke Astor asked Manhattan gallery Knoedler & Co. to sell the Van Gogh to a museum, according to court documents.
Rousseau, the Met curator, approved the $125,000 purchase, even though Knoedler was on the State Department’s “red flag” list of dealers in looted Jewish treasures.
“The Olive Picking” was also on a separate list of looted art because Stern attempted to recover the painting after the war, traveling to Munich and Washington to meet with American officials “without success.”
Brooke Astor, seen in 1994, ordered the sale of “The Olive Picking” in 1955. She later became a trustee of the Met and died at age 105 in 2007. Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
The Met is fighting the Stern family’s lawsuit, saying it did not know Van Gogh had been stolen when it was bought or when it was sold. But it has been revealed that the museum sealed the archives of the curator who bought it until 2073. Helayne Seidman
And Rousseau would have known the truth about the painting, Stern’s descendants say, because he had been part of the elite unit known as the “Monuments Men,” who had tracked down and recovered art looted by the Nazis when Allied forces swept through with Hitler’s regime.
A US Navy officer, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, investigating Nazi art theft until 1946. “He was one of the world’s experts on looted art,” the Stern family maintains.
“Looted Nazi art was all over the art market at the time,” said Michael Gross, author of “Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
This was the passport that Hedwig Stern used to leave Germany in 1936, escaping persecution that ended in the Holocaust for her safety in the United States. But the Gestapo prevented her from taking the Van Gogh, which now leads to her family’s court battle.
Hedwig and Fritz Stern and their children, including their daughter Eva (left), built a new life in America. But when she took this photo in 1948, she had begun efforts to recover the Van Gogh from her, and she was still trying when the Met bought it in 1955.
“The dissection of provenance was not as sophisticated as it is now,” he told The Post.
Stern’s descendants allege that Rousseau skirted State Department rules that would have alerted museums to the purchase.
Then, in 1972, they say, Rousseau turned to the Marlborough Galleries to organize a secret sale for an undisclosed amount, which the Met said was more than $75,000.
The sale was kept secret for months and then condemned by the Art Dealers Association of America as “a breach of the public trust,” the New York Times reported at the time.
Rousseau, before being one of the Met’s most distinguished curators, was one of the “Monument Men,” the elite art hunters played by George Clooney and Matt Damon in the 2014 film of the same name. Kobal/Shutterstock
Basil Goulandris was the apparent buyer in 1972. He died in 1994 after a prolific life spending his fortune as a Greek shipping magnate amassing an enormous art collection. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
The Met said at the time that it was a “minor work” being sold to help purchase a $5.5 million Velázquez painting. But the Stern family says that was a lie; That painting had been purchased in 1971 with money from, among others, Brooke Astor.
A similar work by Van Gogh, “Wooden Cabins Among Olive Trees and Cypresses,” sold at auction in 2021 for more than $71 million.
Rousseau died in 1973 and the Met ordered the archive of his papers sealed until 2073, which the Stern family says will allow the museum to keep the truth about Van Gogh’s secret for decades to come.
Ownership of the painting is still unclear, Stern’s descendants say, and the apparent buyer in 1972 was Greek shipping heir Basil Goulandris and his wife, Elise. They amassed a $3 billion collection before his death.
Goulandris and his wife, Elise, who died in 2000, created a foundation that opened a museum in 2019 to display his collection. Their catalog included “The Olive Picking,” which the Stern family now wants returned. Goulandris Foundation
The Goulandris Foundation gallery in Athens, opened in 2019, is where “The Olive Harvest” was exhibited, although the foundation has not acknowledged that the work belonged to Basil and Elise Goulandris. Wikimedia Commons
The couple’s foundation included “The Olive Picking” in its 2019 catalog for its new Athens museum, but did not say it had belonged to the couple or reveal Stern’s ownership. The foundation declined to comment through a spokeswoman, citing Wednesday’s litigation.
The Met said in a statement that “during the Met’s ownership of the painting,” there was no record that it belonged to the Stern family, adding, “that information was not available until several decades after the painting abandoned the museum collection. “