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Homecoming for Old Masters

The Von Sahers’ Long Battle

Visko Hatfield

With a pair of perky longhaired dachshunds yapping happily and a bear of a chocolate Lab loping at her side, Marei Von Saher makes her entrance, looking many years younger than her age.

The grandmother who made international headlines by winning a David-and-Goliath battle with the Dutch government, forcing it to return 202 of some 1,400 Italian and Dutch old masters seized from her husband’s family by the Nazis during World War II, displays her training as a figure skater as she makes her way across the living room of her Greenwich home.

But don’t be like the Dutch government and let that alluring German accent, that Dorothy Hamill blonde bob and those dazzling Tiffany-blue eyes distract you; this elegant lady packs a punch.

Her staying power — it took her nine years to bring the Dutch down — is as strong and sure as her superwoman handshake.

“Every painting that we find, it’s like a child coming home to us,” a jubilant Marei says with a smile, adding that although the works have not been evaluated and appraised, to her they are priceless. “It’s not about the money; it’s about justice, it’s about restoring the good name of my husband’s father, Jacques Goudstikker.”

Justice, yes. And the guts to make a stand to right a six-decade-old wrong that most people, including Marei, thought would never be rightfully resolved. Announced in February, the decision in this, the second-largest restitution of Nazi-stolen art and the largest art-restitution case in the Netherlands, rocked the museum and art worlds to their foundations. The works, among the finest in the country, had been transferred to the Dutch government after Allied forces recovered them in 1945. The government kept them as part of its national collection and hung them in seventeen museums and other government buildings. In addition to paintings by Anthony van Dyck, Filippino Lippi, Giovanni Bellini, Isaac van Ostade, Claude Lorrain, Jan van Goyen and Jan Steen, the returned art includes the 1649 River Landscape With a View of Herwen and Aerdt in Gelderland by Salomon van Ruysdael, which was considered a treasure of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Marei and her daughters, thirty-three-year-old Chantal and thirty-one-year-old Charlène, are thrilled by the decision and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the artwork, which is due by the end of the year.

“We made history,” says Charlène, a Greenwich real estate agent and former Olympic skater who has been helping Marei with the case since the beginning. “The Nazis stole everything, then the Dutch government stole it again, then my grandmother fought for years to try to get everything back, and then she just couldn’t go on any longer with it. Sixty years from now, this is going to be something that people will read about.”

To make history, the family had to rediscover and uncover its own history, sketching in the details to see the whole picture.

The story, they found out, started in 1919 when Jacques Goudstikker took over the family art gallery in Amsterdam. Through the years, he built a stellar reputation and became a prominent figure in the art world and in the city. Just having a Goudstikker label on a painting enhanced its value. “He was a pioneer in his time,” Charlène says.

“He had different ways of exhibiting his art, and he had different events that no other dealers were having. He was very international before anyone else was.”

He also attracted attention because he was Jewish, so in May 1940, when Nazi troops were advancing, the forty-two-year-old Goudstikker and his wife, Viennese opera singer Desi, fled with Edo, their infant son. Goudstikker’s escape was ill fated: He fell in the hold of the blacked-out ship that was taking him to freedom, broke his neck and died instantly. In July of that year, his mother Emilie, terrified that she was going to be put in a concentration camp, allowed 780 of the gallery’s best sixteenth- and seventeenth-century works by the likes of Van Dyck, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Velázquez, Titian and Tintoretto to be sold to Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering for a pittance. Goering’s art dealer, Alois Miedl, bought the rest, as well as Goudstikker’s home, castle and gallery, at below-market rates.

When the war ended, Desi, armed with Goudstikker’s black book that catalogued his stock, began what became a seven-year effort to recover the art. However, the Dutch government, which retained some 400 paintings, contended that they were legally sold and told her she would have to buy them back. She bought all she could afford — 165 — and complained to the Dutch government about the unfairness of the deal. Desi then tried to put the past behind her, remarrying in 1951 and changing Edo’s surname to her new one, Von Saher.

In 1963, while on a tour of duty in Germany with the U.S. Army, Edo met Marei, a nineteen- year-old German native who was a professional figure skater. He was, Marei admits shyly, “smitten.” She, however, was devoted to her career, which took her all over the world. “We always kept contact wherever I was,” she says. Nine years later, they married and moved to London, where Edo was working.

“I’m not Jewish. I’m not sure that Edo and his mother ever discussed this fact,” Marei says. “I was born in 1944 and grew up in Mannheim, one of the towns bombed the most in World War II. I lived in a ruin with my mother and slept on a mattress with buckets all around to catch the water when it rained. We were fighting to survive, but it doesn’t compare to what the Jews went through.”

By 1973, Edo had a banking career in Manhattan, and he and his young family were ensconced in Greenwich.

“We knew very little of the Jacques Goudstikker story,” Marei says. “I knew my husband’s father was an art collector and a dealer; the girls knew about it because of Desi’s talking about it. But it wasn’t discussed in detail; I just knew there were old masters. It didn’t really concern me. And by the time Edo was an adult, Desi had moved back to Holland, where she spent the rest of her life.

I was focusing on forming a happy family life. That was really the past. Now, many times I wish I had asked many, many more questions of my mother-in-law. I’m so upset with myself, but I had to focus on the future.”

During that time, Marei also was busy building a new career: She was teaching skating at the Greenwich Skating Club and other nearby rinks, something she still does.

It wasn’t until 1997, after Desi died of heart complications and Edo of cancer — months apart in 1996 — that the Von Sahers began to fill in all the blanks. It was Pieter den Hollander, a Dutch investigative reporter who ultimately wrote a book about them titled The Goudstikker Case, who called them out of the blue and gave them their first clue.

“I always knew there were 1,300 to 1,400 paintings,” Charlène says. “But we didn’t realize the depth. And what we really didn’t realize was that my grandmother was not treated fairly after the war, and that’s why to this day we don’t have the 1,400 paintings. Pieter said to us, ‘Do you realize that you can make a claim against the Dutch government?’ ”

So the Von Sahers began doing research, and in January 1998, they asked the Dutch government to return the paintings. The request was denied, and they appealed. In 1999 a Dutch court ruled that it was “incompetent” to alter the government’s decision. That same year, the Austrian government returned 250 paintings to the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family; to date, it still holds the record as the world’s largest restitution.

“We spent the whole day in court, and all the proceedings were in Dutch,” Charlène says, adding that they also began to track down the family art in private collections and museums on their own. “We could have just given up at that point, but we always believed in it. The Dutch government just thought that we would go away. At the very beginning, some Dutch government officials flew to New York to tell us we should leave it alone.”

And, Marei adds, “They told us, ‘Don’t show up with lawyers!’ During the nine years we were doing this, the government changed several times, so we had to start all over each time.”

Their big break came in 2001 when the first Goudstikker painting — Belgian artist Jan de Cock’s sixteenth-century oil on wood titled The Temptation of St. Anthony — was reunited with its rightful heirs. “It has so much meaning, especially because it comes from a private collection. There were no fights, no arguments to get it back,” Marei says. “I would guard it with my life.”

The de Cock is one of forty-two paintings that the Von Sahers have recovered so far. Some have been auctioned to pay the bills associated with the search; the others are being stored out of state until a decision is made on their ultimate fate. “The de Cock gave us hope that we could continue further,” Charlène says. “With each painting, we try to come up with some sort of amicable solution.”

Buoyed by their success, the Von Sahers hired the German art detective Clemens Toussaint to track down some of the Goudstikker works in private collections and museums.

Meanwhile, the controversy of the Goudstikker case forced the Dutch government to set up a Restitution Committee to handle special art-loss claims. In 2004, Marei took her case to the committee and this year won back 202 of the 267 works she requested from the Dutch national collection. “It was time that they were returned,” Marei says. We feel that they had had them for a long time, and they have benefited from them for sixty years.”

“It’s been unfair for sixty years,” Charlène adds. Only now that the Dutch battle is over have the Von Sahers begun tallying the costs. “We made sacrifices, but they weren’t only financial,” Marei says.

“They were sacrifices of time and emotion. It forced me always to go back into the past. Now that it has been concluded positively, it’s a whole different thing going back into the past.”

Today the past and present are intersecting to form a new future for the Von Sahers. Once they have the Dutch paintings — they can’t wait to actually see them — they have to decide their fate. They have discussed a number of options, including creating a permanent gallery for them, and are considering writing a book about the Goudstikker story and their search.

“We have to find out exactly what we have, so we can decide what we can do with them while still honoring my grandfather and still honoring the art and also honoring all the people who helped us get the art,” Charlène says. “It’s a big responsibility.”

Whatever they end up doing, Marei says, the goal will be to make Goudstikker a household name again. “I want his name back in the world,” she says. “His name had been forgotten, and it had been pulled through the mud. It is our duty and our mission to straighten it out again and make Jacques Goudstikker what he used to be. We’re so proud of him, so everyone else needs to be.”

Although they aren’t art experts, Marei and Charlène say their personal connection to the Goudstikker masterpieces has given them a keen appreciation of art and has spurred them to study the subject.

We are not art collectors,” Marei says. “But we are in a fortunate position to now become art collectors, and how wonderful it is to have art that belonged to our family. It’s family property.”

Each of the Goudstikker paintings, which originally came with a China-red wax seal on the back, is special, they say, because until they began their quest, they possessed only one from Desi’s estate — a portrait of two little girls by the nineteenth-century French Impressionist Berthe Morisot.

“One of the caregivers at the Goudstikker gallery grabbed it as everyone was fleeing and saved it for my grandmother,” Charlène says. “This was one of my grandmother’s favorite little treasures, and now it’s one of my mother’s favorites because it symbolizes her two daughters.”

Marei also is particularly fond of a restituted Rachel Ruysch still life. The Dutch Baroque-era painter, she points out, became famous for painting realistic renditions of butterflies because “she put real butterflies in the painting and painted over them.” She also enjoys another recent find, a nineteenth-century Constant Troyan titled simply Cow in a Pasture, that was returned by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum – Fondation Corboud in Cologne.
While the Von Sahers wait for the containers of art from Holland, they are gearing up for more battles. They vow they will not rest until every single painting is back in the fold. The Dutch decision, they hope, will pave the way and force more collectors and museums, like Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, which has the sixteenth-century diptych of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder, to return other Nazi-appropriated art to the rightful owners.

With the remaining artworks scattered around the globe and secreted in private collections, their goal may be an impossible one, but it is one that they remain committed to. And this time, it will be three — not two —pursuing the art: Chantal, who had spent the last five years in Lima, Peru, recently moved back to Greenwich and wants to help out.

“I hope people in similar situations learn from this that they should persevere, because times have changed,” Marei says. “You just have to believe that there can be success and you can get back what is rightfully yours.”

She is, after all, vibrant proof that it can be done. But at the moment, there are more mundane things to think about. She wakes the dogs, who have dozed off during the interview; it’s time for Rosie, Sissi and Sebastian to take their afternoon constitutional.

“There is still a lot of work ahead of us,” she says as she walks happily down the front path of her house.