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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sam To Return Matisse Stolen During Wwii

Seattle Times Art Critic

After nearly a two-year legal battle that at times has sounded like the plot of a World War II thriller, the Seattle Art Museum has decided to return a painting by Henri Matisse to the heirs of a French art dealer.

The museum's Board of Trustees unanimously decided yesterday to return the 1928 oil painting, "Odalisque," to Micheline Nanette Sinclair and Elaine Rosenberg, the daughter and daughter-in-law, respectively, of Paul Rosenberg, a well-known French Jewish art dealer whose large and important collection of modern art was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) made the decision after receiving a report from the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that researches the histories of artworks that changed hands during and immediately after the war.

SAM has said for more than a year that it would not make any decisions about the painting without a thorough and independent investigation into what happened to "Odalisque" between 1941, the year it was looted from Rosenberg's cache in Southern France, and 1954, the year Seattle timber baron Prentice Bloedel bought it for $19,000 from Knoedler & Co., a New York art gallery. Though SAM refuses to put a price on the work, recent sales of comparable works suggest a current value might be around $2 million.

The Rosenberg heirs sued SAM in U.S. District Court in Seattle in August, almost a year after asking the museum to return the painting. SAM later sued Knoedler for fraud and breach of title warranty.

Bloedel, father of Seattle art patron Virginia Wright, willed the painting to SAM. It has been part of the museum's collection since the early 1990s, and on display frequently.

The Rosenbergs became aware the museum had the painting following publication of "The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art," by Hector Feliciano. In the book, "Odalisque" was listed as stolen from Rosenberg but never recovered.

`The right thing to do'

Mimi Gates, SAM's director, said the HARP report answers several crucial questions about the history of the painting.

The report, she said, proves the painting is the one taken by the Nazis from the vault where Rosenberg hid his collection. The report also makes clear that Rosenberg, who died in 1959 after moving his art business to New York, never again saw the painting or had the chance to bring it back into his collection. This is a pivotal point, since it apparently proves Rosenberg never sold the painting to anyone.

"We are really pleased to be returning it to the Rosenberg family," Gates said. "We are in the process of making the arrangements to return it now. Now that we've had thorough research, and now that the HARP report is completed, this is the right thing to do."

Gates would not say exactly when or where the painting will go, though presumably it will be sent to Rosenberg heirs in New York or Paris. Laura Hoguet, of the New York law firm of Hoguet Newman & Regal, issued a statement saying her clients, the Rosenberg heirs, are "glad that the painting is found and that the museum has agreed to return it."

It is the second time in less than two months that the Rosenbergs have had a painting returned. In April, the French government returned a 1904 oil by Claude Monet, "Waterlilies." It had been hanging in a provincial French museum since 1975, and before that was often exhibited in Parisian public museums.

SAM goes after the seller

Though the HARP report has not been made public, it leaves several intriguing questions unanswered. SAM says HARP was unable to verify the whereabouts of the painting between 1941 and 1954, when the painting was acquired by Galerie Drouant-David, of Paris. Knoedler bought the painting later that year from Galerie Drouant-David.

The story of SAM's involvement with "Odalisque" apparently is not over. Gates said SAM will continue to wage a legal battle against Knoedler in an effort to recover the current value of the painting and legal costs SAM has accrued because of the Rosenberg's lawsuit.

SAM maintains that if the painting was stolen, Knoedler did not have the right to sell it to Bloedel. In addition, SAM contends Knoedler knowingly misrepresented the provenance, or history of the painting, to the Bloedels. SAM's suit against Knoedler is scheduled for trial in January.

"The museum has a duty to our public, including museum donors, to hold Knoedler fully accountable for the loss to our permanent collection resulting from Knoedler's improper sale to the Bloedels," said Gates.

Knoedler has said throughout the controversy that it has nothing to do with the dispute.

"The issue of giving the painting back has always been between the Rosenbergs and the museum," said Lewis Clayton, of the New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which is representing Knoedler. "I have no doubt that the museum will continue to pursue this. But I don't believe they'll be able to satisfy their claim against Knoedler."

The return of "Odalisque" to the Rosenbergs diminishes SAM's already small modern art collection.

"Odalisque" is the most significant of the five works by Matisse in the collection. The museum retains two prints, a small bronze sculpture and a small oil painting.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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