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The descendants of a Parisian art dealer are demanding that the Henie Onstad Art Center near Oslo, Norway return Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) Blue Dress in a Yellow Armchair (1937) to them. Nazis seized the painting from its owner, Paul Rosenberg, prior to the outbreak of World War II. Ultimately, Rosenberg, one of the most prominent French art dealers and a personal friend of Pablo Picasso and Matisse, fled to New York and survived the war.

The painting in dispute has been a celebrated part of the Onstad’s collection since the museum was established in 1968. The work was donated to the fledgling institution by art collector Niels Onstad and his wife Sonjia Henie, an Olympic figure skater. Museum Director Tone Hansen attests that Onstad and Henie bought the painting from the Parisian Galerie Henri Benezit in 1950, unaware of its troublesome provenance. Hansen was unaware that Nazis had stolen the painting until the Art Loss Register, an organization that tracks lost and stolen paintings, notified him in 2012.

Art Registry documents show that Rosenberg purchased Blue Dress in a Yellow Armchair directly from Matisse in 1937. Following World War II, Rosenberg attempted to re-establish his business and tried to recover the 400+ works that had been taken from him by the Nazis. The painting was marked on Rosenberg’s personal documents as missing after the war. He also reported the painting missing to French authorities in 1946.

While Rosenberg’s heirs hope that the painting will be returned to their family, Norwegian law states that if a person has had an item in good faith for over 10 years, they are deemed the rightful owner. However, the argument is in contrast to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which Norway is a part of.

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Germany’s Staatsgalerie Stuttgart museum returned a 15th century Renaissance painting stolen by Nazis during World War II to the estate of a Jewish art dealer. The museum acquired Virgin and Child, which is attributed to the Master of Flémalle (1375-1444) who is identified by historians as Robert Campin, in 1948.

The painting once belonged to Max Stern (1904-1987) who lost over 400 paintings to the Nazi regime during a forced sale in 1937. After Jews were banned from selling art in Nazi-occupied Europe, Stern shuttered his Dusseldorf gallery and escaped to London in December of the same year. Before settling in Montreal, Stern sold even more paintings, including Virgin and Child, in order to buy a German exit visa for his mother. Stern went on to purchase the Dominion Gallery of Fine Arts and established himself as one of Canada’s most important art dealers and collectors.

Upon his death in 1987, Stern donated a portion of his estate to Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal as well as the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For the past ten years Concordia has been working to recover the hundreds of paintings Stern lost at the hands of the Nazis. The initiative, known as the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, has facilitated the return of 9 works originally belonging to Stern; Virgin and Child is the 10th and the only work to be returned from a German museum thus far.

A ceremony was held on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin to celebrate the painting’s return.  

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