Reclaimed at last: CJM exhibit illustrates family’s struggle to recover Nazi-looted art

Jewish art dealer and bon vivant Jacques Goudstikker had predicted it years before — the “imminent storm,” as he once called it in a letter to his wife. So seven months before the Nazis invaded his Dutch homeland, Goudstikker made ready.

He obtained U.S. visas for himself, his wife and infant son. He transferred money to an American bank account. And he shipped a few precious artworks to England.

But nothing could fully prepare Holland’s Jewish community for the German invasion, which began May 10, 1940.

In the ensuing chaos, the Goudstikkers made their way to the sea, as German bombs fell. The family’s priceless art collection, consisting of some 1,400 canvases and sculptures, had been hastily left in the hands of frightened aides.

Everything Jacques had, everything Jacques was, got left behind as he boarded a westbound cargo ship on May 13.

Marei von Saher and her daughter, Charlene von Saher

Two days later, Jacques Goudstikker was dead, the victim of a accidental fall on board. Meanwhile, Hitler’s minions got busy, stealing every work of art left in the Goudstikker collection.

The Nazis were more than mass murderers. They were world-class thieves as well. For them, all of Europe was ripe for the plunder, and before the tide of war turned, Germany stole — mostly from Jewish victims — countless works of art, jewels and other treasures.

In the Goudstikker case, there is, at least in part, a happy ending.

San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is now running a remarkable exhibition, “Reclaimed: Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker.”

Created by the Bruce Museum of Greenwich, Conn., and made possible through grants from the Koret and Taube Foundations, this will be the traveling exhibition’s only West Coast stop. The CJM show opened Oct. 29 and will conclude March 29, 2011.

On the road for two years and featuring 45 masterworks, along with supporting documents, photos and other materials, the exhibition captures in microcosm the pervasive Nazi crime of cultural looting.

The Goudstikker pieces on display include Italian Renaissance works, early German and Dutch paintings, 17th-century Dutch Old Masters, French and Italian Rococo artworks, and 19th-century French and Northern European paintings.

“They are beautiful works,” said CJM Executive Director Connie Wolf. “They tell a story about Dutch landscape and portraiture. [The artists] don’t have the names of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, but they are incredibly accomplished.”

Highlights include Jan Wellens de Cock’s “Temptation of Saint Anthony,” a river landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael, a rare early marine painting by Salomon’s nephew Jacob van Ruisdael, “Winter Landscape with Skaters” by Jan van Goyen, and Jan van der Heyden’s “View of Nyenrode Castle on the Vecht.”

That castle sits on the same country estate once owned by Goudstikker.

Also on view are still life and portraits, such as Hieronymus Galle’s “Still Life with Flowers in a Vase” and Ferdinand Bol’s “Louise-Marie Gonzaga de Nevers.”

Having these priceless works of art on display means everything to the family that lost it all.

“I really believe other claimants like us will follow our steps and fight for what is rightfully theirs,” said Marei von Saher, widow of Goudstikker’s son, Edo, and the woman who led a near decade-long fight for restitution of her father-in-law’s collection.

Von Saher never met Jacques Goudstikker.

Her father-in-law was a third-generation art collector in Holland (the family traced their Dutch origins back to the 1700s) and an assimilated Jew. He made an impact on the European art world of his day, responsible for what was then the largest exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens’ work in Holland.

He and his Austrian-born opera singer wife would entertain friends and prospective clients in high style. “I adore Holland more than anything,” he once wrote, “and it has always been so good to me.”

Fate cut short the good times as Germany’s invasion of Holland came to pass. In those chaotic days of May 1940, Goudstikker gave no one power of attorney to act on his behalf “so as not to appoint anyone the enemy could get their claws into,” wrote his widow, Desi, years later.

Only days after the invasion, Goudstikker, his wife and their 16-month-old son, Edo, escaped Europe on board the SS Bodegraven, with a final destination of Canada. Two days later, Goudstikker was dead at age 42, having broken his neck in a fall. He was buried in Falmouth, England.

Despite her grief, Desi remembered to hold on to Jacques’ little black book. In it he had written extensive notes on every piece in his vast collection. That book would play a crucial role in recovering 200 pieces of stolen art many decades later.

Back in Holland, as Germany set about destroying the country’s Jewish community (three-quarters of Holland’s Jews died in the Holocaust), Hitler’s top henchman, Hermann Goering, led the looting of the Goudstikker collection. The art was stolen under terms of a forced contract, which gummed up the works when Marei sought restitution years later from the Dutch government.

Goering displayed hundreds of those works at his country estate near Berlin. A Nazi underling, Alois Miedl, took over Goudstikker’s former gallery.

This was all part of the Third Reich’s systematic campaign to seize the cultural property of Jews through theft, confiscation and forced sales. The Goudstikkers were one of thousands of victimized families.

Under the auspices of a special task force, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Germany looted art from private homes, museums, libraries and other institutions. Wherever the Nazi war machine invaded, the ERR was close behind, ready to load up the trains with stolen art.

ERR warehouses were piled high with crates, each containing the stolen treasures of Nazi victims.

After the war, with many rightful owners dead, the task of restituting looted art fell to governments and quasi-governmental agencies. The red tape was often unbearable.

After liberation, the Allies recovered 200 Goudstikker works of art, all eventually repatriated to Holland under the care of the government.

Desi returned to Holland after the war, determined to recover her husband’s artworks. Instead of meeting with sympathy, she found the government turned a deaf ear to her entreaties, making it nearly impossible to recover property.

The art languished for years in the national collection. Desi died in 1996, despairing that justice would never be served. She was followed in death shortly thereafter by Edo, her son with Jacques.

It took the determination of Edo’s widow, Marei, her daughter, Charlene, and a feisty New York art lawyer by the name of Lawrence Kaye, to turn things around.

“We were immediately intrigued by the case,” Kaye recalled of their first meeting in 1997. “It was clear this was a case of enormous merit, discovering a collection that had been looted by Goering himself. It’s been a challenge to our legal skills, recovering art from the worst thieves in history.”

Kaye says the difficulties laid mainly in the paper trail, which suggested the artworks had been legally transferred to the Germans.

“For many years, [the Dutch government] took the position that these were business transactions,” he said. “As in many countries they did not deal with restitution until the mid-1990s, when the world woke up to the fact that it was a global problem.”

In the broader world, this later resulted in groundbreaking books, symposiums and even documentary films such as “The Rape of Europa,” all shedding light on the old but never forgotten Nazi crimes.

Finally, in 2006, Holland’s restitution committee admitted the Goudstikker transaction had been an involuntary sale. Around 200 pieces of art were returned to the family. Kaye says the remaining 1,200 are still out there, and the hunt continues. The family wants every single one returned.

Meanwhile, the von Sahers have delighted in sharing the art — and the Jacques Goudstikker story — with the world through the current exhibition, which has stopped in three American cities so far.

“The exhibition is about so much more than beautiful paintings,” said New York City resident Charlene von Saher. “They will see documents and original photographs that link the whole thing together.”

When the show closes for good, and the paintings are hung in Marie von Saher’s Greenwich, Conn., home, Marei anticipates mixed feelings.

Yes, the art has found its way back home. But she can never forget the heartbreak and horror, stretching back nearly 70 years, causing her family so much senseless turmoil.

“I wish my husband were still alive and could have enjoyed this,” she says. “I feel it was worth every bit of struggle because it is so important to have gotten this terrible wrong right. Justice had to prevail.”

“Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker” on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Now through March 29, 2011. $5-$10. Information: (415) 655-7800 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.