DIA defends its right to Van Gogh
Nazi-era collector’s heirs say it’s theirs
January 26, 2006
The controversy over Nazi-looted art that has plagued other leading U.S.
and European museums has reached the Detroit Institute of Arts as a
battle over a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece has landed in federal court.
The DIA went to court Tuesday to protect what museum leaders say is its
rightful ownership of an 1889 painting by van Gogh worth at least $15
million, by one estimate.
The DIA took the action after failing to resolve a long-simmering
dispute with the heirs of a Nazi-era Jewish collector, who claim that
the painting, which has been in the DIA’s collection since 1970, belongs
to the family. DIA officials, however, say that the evidence is
incontrovertible that the painting, which belonged to Martha Nathan, a
German-Jewish collector in the 1920s and ’30s, came to the museum in an
ethical fashion.
While other pieces of art from Nathan’s collection were in the French
government’s official 1947 register of art losses by private individuals
in France during the war, the Van Gogh and Gauguin are not listed.
The Van Gogh painting was bought by Detroit collector Robert H.
Tannahill from Wildenstein for $34,000 in 1941. He willed it to the
museum in 1970.
The DIA has a history of sensitivity to Nazi-era provenance issues. In
1950, the museum was the first in the United States to return a piece of
Nazi-looted art, a painting by Claude Monet, to its rightful owner.