420 A stolen Rembrandt in Dayton, Ohio

In the night of 9/10 April 1921 a Rembrandt self-portrait was stolen from the museum in Weimar, Germany, with three other paintings. Three of the four resurfaced on 3 August 1945 in Dayton, when an Ohio woman married to a German-American immigrant brought them to the director of the Dayton Art Institute. This did not become known to the public until 10 February 1947, after the paintings had been removed from the ownership of the couple. The documentation stunned Schwartz and will stun you!

Say you’re the director of an art museum in the Midwest and someone walks into your office with a painting you recognize as having been stolen from a museum in Germany twenty-four years before. What do you do? In answer to that question, I do not have to make up a story. I can let the director himself tell what he did. He sketches the situation in a letter to a highly placed colleague.

From the files of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

To a Rembrandt scholar, used to working with unprovable assumptions and dismissible documentation, in a field where the owners of and dealers in old masters are habitually secretive, for reasons you don’t want to know, the discovery of this letter, with its first-hand report of facts and disclosure of the writer’s somewhat deceptive motives, was all the more stunning. The letter is by the director of the Dayton Art Institute, Siegfried Weng, and is addressed to Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Understandably, Weng’s first priority is to make sure that the Rembrandt and the other two stolen canvases in the package, by Gerard ter Borch and Johann Tischbein, do not disappear again.

Next question. You are the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and you get the above letter from a trusted colleague in the Midwest. How do you reply? Have a look at how the real director did reply:

Washington, National Archives, in the folder (where it does not properly belong) “Importation by Members of Armed Forces – Memorandum to Museums about Questionable Importation of Art Objects”

Although Anna Cunningham had told Siegfried Weng that her husband Leo Ernst had bought the paintings on the New York waterfront in 1934, meaning that they had never been in a war area, and although their date of importation placed them outside the remit of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Weng followed Taylor’s advice and the American Commission took on the case. And so ensued a sequence of astonishing events that over a period of twenty-eight years caused headaches to countless individuals, bureaus and government bodies in the U.S., up to the president, and in Germany to courts in the West and the government in the East.

Here is what happened. Suspicious of the intentions of the owners, Weng asked Anna to leave the paintings in his care. That she did so with no objection (she later said she hoped to be given a reward) did not satisfy Weng of her uprightness. For the next eighteen months, as he wrote to his co-conspirators, he “humored her” while taking measures behind her back to have the paintings taken from her. Is this what you would have done?

The measure that was finally taken to get possession of the paintings was sheer overkill. Operating the way it did with art seized by the Nazis or stolen by U.S. troops, the American Commission had the paintings “vested” – expropriated, making them government property. This came to pass on 28 January 1947, through application of a powerful law called the Trading With the Enemy Act. On the 10th of February the public announcement was made, and Dayton went wild.

Weng and Taylor barely had time to exhale their respective sighs of relief before Weng was ordered by the Attorney General to send the paintings to New York, where they were to be sold by closed bidding in about sixty days for the benefit of U.S. citizens who had suffered financial damage in the Second World War. The protectors and salvagers who had the paintings confiscated from the Ernsts had not taken this possibility into account as seriously as they should have.

Siegfried Weng regrouped, and on 13 February wrote an eloquent letter to Donald Cook, Director of the Office of Alien Property, the perpetrator of the vesting, from which I quote.

Dear Sir:

I have just had a telephone call from G. Gordon Lamude, New York Manager for the Office of Alien Property Custodian requesting that we send him at once the paintings seized under order #6107 and said to be the Rembrandt, Ter Borch, and Tischbein paintings which were stolen from the Weimar Museum in Germany in 1922, at a time when we were at peace with that country.

As you know, it has been essentially through our efforts since August 1945 that these paintings have been brought to the attention of the cultural leadership and proper government authorities in our country. In the Vesting Order which is before me is the clause which reads:

“There is hereby vested in the Attorney General of the United States the property described above to be held, used, administered, liquidated, sold or otherwise dealt with in the interest of and for the benefit of the United States.”

We feel very strongly that the best interests of our country and the benefit of the people of the United States is not in a closed bid sale which we understand is not obligatory under the law.

If the paintings are what they are reputed to be, certainly the few dollars which would accrue from such a sale would be of small benefit to this nation compared to the knowledge that works of art of this caliber have preserved for posterity and for our nation today, in a way that would be applauded by thinking men everywhere.

When I published my book on the Rembrandt self-portrait last year, I did not know about this letter, a copy of which is posted online on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What I wrote about the reaction of the museum world to the vesting was this:

This supposition can now be filled in and greatly amplified. Siegfried Weng sent copies of his letter to Donald Cook to the following parties, listed in a cc:

President Harry Truman

Senator Robt. A. Taft [senator from Ohio]

Senator John W. Bricker [senator from Ohio]

Dr. David E. Finley [director of the National Gallery of Art]

Mr. Francis H. Taylor [director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Mr. Gilmore D. Clarke [landscape architect, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts]

Mr. Tom Clark, Atty. Gen.

Mr. Chas. Sawyer [assistant secretary of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Area]

Mr. Gordon Washburn [director of the Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA]

Mr. Wm. Milliken [director of the Cleveland Museum of Art]

Mr. Daniel C. Rich [chief curator and director of fine arts at the Art Institute of Chicago]

Mr. Fiske Kimball [director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art]

Dr. Grace M. Morley [director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]

Mr. Perry Rathbone [director of the St. Louis Art Museum]

Mr. Philip R. Adams [director of the Cincinnati Art Museum]

Mr. Homer St. Gaudens [director of the Art Museum of the Carnegie Institute]

Mr. Frederick M. Clapp [director of the Frick Collection]

Mrs. Juliana Force [director of the Whitney Museum of American Art]

Mr. Peyton Boswell, Jr. [editor of Art Digest and critic]

Mr. Alfred Frankfurter [editor of Art News]

Mr. Thos. C. Parker [director of the American Federation of Arts]

Mr. Charles Z. Offin [artist, publisher and art patron]

Weng’s argument and, perhaps, the contemplation of that listing of heavy hitters had the desired effect. The next day the attorney general reversed the decision of the Office of Alien Property and ordered the paintings to be sent to Washington to be put into the custody of the National Gallery of Art.

To find out what other wild adventures the Rembrandt went through in the century before the theft and that since, you will have to read my book: Rembrandt in a red beret: the vanishings and reappearances of a self-portrait.

But I cannot leave the subject without showing one more piece of unexpectedly specific evidence. In the old days, when bosses had secretaries to type their letters, a certain convention prevailed. At the bottom of a letter, the secretary would type the boss’s initials in capitals, and after a slash her own (secretaries were women), in lower case. Siegfried Weng’s letters were marked SRW/mr. To my delight, I discovered in a Dutch newspaper who mr was. She was Mildred Raffel, who as I found out from her obituary in a Dayton newspaper, was secretary to successive directors of the Dayton Art Institute for nearly thirty years.

From Het Parool, 7 March 1947. It must have been taken from a Dayton source that I have not yet located.

© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 31 August 2023. With thanks for the inestimable help of Adam Berenbak of the National Archives and Nadine Orenstein and Jim Moske of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If it’s not too late, I hope the Democratic Party will find another, younger candidate for the presidential election of 2024 than Joe Biden. Not only is he just too old for the race and the job, he is also so vulnerable to accusations of corruption that he should remove himself from candidacy. That he is not doing so I find grounds enough to disqualify him. During his vice-presidency, when he bore a degree of executive responsibility for the highly charged U.S. relationship to Ukraine, he stood by when his son Hunter accepted a position on the board of the Ukraine energy company Burisma, for a reputed monthly salary of $50,000. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this appointment came to Hunter, with no qualifications for the post, only because Burisma expected to gain political leverage in the U.S. through him. The defense that there is no proof that Joe Biden benefitted personally from Hunter’s windfall is beside the point and insincere. Even if Joe Biden was only a passive participant in this arrangement, a participant he was. It was his office and his (too) public attachment to his son that facilitated this piece of blatant bribery, no matter whether it brought cash to Biden, favors to Burisma or not. The Republicans have been beating Biden over the head with this with enough facts to give cover to the vitriol and hyperbole they pour on top of the facts. This is only going to get worse and more damaging. Biden is forced onto the defensive, with no good defense available. Why oh why has the Democratic leadership not looked this situation in the face and taken Biden out of the running?

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16 thoughts on “420 A stolen Rembrandt in Dayton, Ohio”

  1. Sorry, Gary
    No matter his age, Biden has been proven to defeat Trump and Republicans in general. They cannot be returned to power.
    And don’t mention children’s corruption when the Trump spawn is still grifting.
    Best wishes to you!

    1. Dear Ann, I wish it were so. But it’s self-deceptive to say that because Trump is such a criminal monster, Biden’s peccadillos can’t matter to anyone. Trump is the object of a cult of personality. Two impeachments and four indictments have not put a dent in him. Biden does not inspire that kind of following. He is more dependent on the shifts of public opinion and is therefore more vulnerable as a candidate. The shade of distrust – that’s what I’m writing about – will hurt him far more than criminal proceedings will hurt Trump. Sure, think of 2020 but don’t forget 2016. It was dislike of Hillary that did her in. The Democrats need a candidate who will not rub too many people the wrong way, and the Hunter-in-Ukraine business and the way it colors Biden will contribute to that unwanted effect.

  2. Fascinating story, and a very worthwhile memorial of all those distinguished and undistinguished people whose names were, for the most part, once so familiar. Very glad that you were able to bring Mildred Raffel more fully into the historical record.

    1. Thank you. Getting the copy of that letter, with the cc’s to that who’s who of the museum world of 1947, and finding out about Mildred Raffel, indeed gave me shots of researcher’s thrill.

  3. An 1974 Epilogue from DER SPIEGEL 42/1974 October 13, an ongoing story:

    “Inheritance Secured
    Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach Triumphs over the Republic: Bonn Must Release a Three-Million-Rembrandt.

    Six years of legal battles across four judicial instances illuminated the survival of a minor German princely glory and the decline of overarching German self-righteousness. Only in the penultimate week did the two-state reality get recognized, satisfying an already historical claim to nobility.

    The beneficiary is Grand Duchess Elisabeth of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, residing in Freiburg! Breisgau, aged 62, while the loser is the Federal Republic of Germany. The subject of dispute between the daughter-in-law of the last ruling regional sovereign, whose grand duchy ceased to exist on November 9, 1918, and the Federal Ministry of the Interior was one of the most beautiful and valuable Rembrandt self-portraits, his “Self-Portrait” from the year 1643. The court estimated the value of the painting at 2.85 million marks, though connoisseurs consider it to be significantly more valuable.

    The Rembrandt painting was stolen along with other artworks in April 1921 by unknown German soldiers from the museum in Weimar, where it had been on loan from the Grand Duke since 1909. The painting eventually ended up in the possession of a German-American in Dayton, Ohio, through a member of the German merchant marine, whose wife attempted to sell the million-dollar object in August 1945, which had been missing until then. The suspicious director of the Dayton Art Institute informed the FBI, leading to the artwork being confiscated as “enemy property.”

    When the Americans returned the Rembrandt portrait along with other paintings to “the German people” as “German Cultural Heritage” and appointed the Federal Republic as the trustee—until a potential handover to the Weimar Museum—the Grand Duchess embarked on a lengthy journey through the legal system. She was able to demonstrate that the stolen Rembrandt had never passed into state ownership, even through general transfer and settlement agreements between the grand ducal family and the Thuringian territory.

    Nevertheless, in March 1971, the Bonn Regional Court ruled that the federal government was entitled to act as trustee for pan-German cultural heritage. The 1st Civil Chamber concluded that only after the paintings were returned to the Weimar Museum could it be determined whether the cultural asset belonged to the German people or the rightful inheriting Grand Duchess.

    The aristocratic plaintiff’s argument that Bonn’s claimed sole representation was “a political mandate that cannot easily be transformed into an authorization to assert future private-law claims of a reunited Germany” was also in vain.

    In December 1971, the Cologne Higher Regional Court, like the Bonn Chamber, held the view that the restitution claim was “unjustified from any perspective.” As the appellate instance, the 14th Civil Senate determined that uncompensated expropriation had occurred due to the confiscation as enemy property.

    However, as the third instance, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe overturned the Cologne Rembrandt ruling and aligned with the revision argument that it could not have been the “impossible intent of the agreement” (upon the return of the paintings in 1966) to refer the plaintiff to the Weimar Museum or the GDR, “where the assertion of rights of the grand ducal house after its expropriation by the GDR would have been inherently futile.”

    In November 1973, one year after signing the Basic Treaty with the GDR, the VIII. Civil Senate of the Federal Court of Justice also clarified that the Federal Republic was “neither the legal successor of the state of Thuringia nor of the GDR” and therefore had not become a contracting party to the House of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach through the trusteeship imposed by the United States.

    At the request of the Federal Court of Justice, the 14th Senate of the Cologne Higher Regional Court had to once again address the final whereabouts of the Rembrandt painting now stored in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. Now, even the senate judges recognized the plaintiff’s entitlement to the “Self-Portrait.” “The talk of sole representation and pan-German cultural heritage,” said attorney Lothar Bungartz, who fought for the Grand Duchess in Cologne, “was no longer present at all.””

    1. Sven – you’ve gone ahead and revealed free of charge one of the following highpoints in the history of the painting, which subscribers to the Schwartzlist were supposed to read after buying my book! But thanks anyway. (Really.)

      The article is very well informed. One departure from documentable events is the remark that the painting was stolen by “unknown German soldiers.” This was never ascertained, but it was brought into circulation by Anna Cunningham and Leo Ernst in 1947. In the book I suggest that they did so in order to create the impression that they were somehow rescuing the painting from a situation of post-revolutionary anarchy, making them less susceptible to the charge that they were simply in receipt of stolen goods.

  4. When I come across one of your (too infrequent) posts, my mystery loving heart goes pitter-pat and I dive in to reading with great pleasure. So far I have never been disappointed. So thank you (again!)

    As for Biden, in a more “normal” world I too would prefer Elizabeth Warren or Adam Schiff or Sherrod Brown, or Amy Klobuchar or any of a whole bunch of others (even Gavin Newsom), but it terrifies me to think of Trump back in the WH, and I’m more confident about Biden’s re-electability than of any of the others’ chances, at least right now…With any luck trump will withdraw, be declared ineligible, be in, or on the way to prison, or fall into cement mixer. In the meantime I think Biden – or his staff – have done better than expected and I’ll stick with them for now. 🤞🏻🤞🏻🤞🏻

    1. How wonderful to hear that, Sheila. I’ll continue to do my best for you, although I don’t think I can improve on the frequency of one column a month.

      I hate to say what follows, but it upsets me too much to leave it unsaid.

      Biden may have done better than expected in many ways, but he did one thing that I consider unforgiveable. In April 2021, after three months in office, he announced that the U.S. was taking its troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11 that year. There were then 2,500 U.S. troops in the country. In the 12 months before April 2021, they had suffered four fatalities. That was the current price for preserving the fragile freedom of the country and preventing a new Taliban takeover. Biden was however not willing to pay that price.

      Although Trump had “negotiated” an American withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban in Doha in February 2020, Biden presented his decision as highly personal, never mentioning Trump. Saying that the U.S. had accomplished its objective in invading Afghanistan, he gave as his reason “I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

      So it was in order to bolster what he saw as the prestige of his presidency that he ordered that disastrous exit. In the withdrawal itself, in August 2021, thirteen U.S. servicemen were killed, more than in the preceding twenty months. All that rhetoric of Biden’s about the sanctity of the lives of U.S. troops, topped off by his being the father of a man who was deployed to Iraq, stood in no relation to the facts, let alone to the untold harm he was unleashing on the people of Afghanistan.

      In April he could still say that the U.S. was committed to supporting the government of Afghanistan. In August the Taliban threat was so great that the president fled the country two weeks before the last U.S. troops left. But leave they did, even as the Taliban took over Kabul. At that point Biden did bring in the Doha agreement, now blaming the pre-announced exit on Trump. (His hands were however not tied by Doha.)

      My respect for Biden would have been restored if he had resigned in favor of Kamala Harris when it became clear that he was unable to save the people of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban, that his justification of the exit in April 2021 was totally and completely and tragically misguided. But he seems to continue believing or at least saying that the decision was right.

      In my remarks in the column, I wrote only about Biden’s vulnerability as a candidate because of how Hunter was bought. But in maintaining him for re-election, the Democratic Party is effectively condoning Biden’s historical and humanitarian failure in Afghanistan. Let it please replace him.


  5. Very handsome photo of you looking calm, cool, and authoritative, in the NYT story. Nicely composed quasi-baroque triply recursive portrait arrangement by Ilvy Njiokiktjien. Can a name look more Dutch?

    1. I’m so glad you noticed, Richard. Of course I asked Ilvy to show me at my most advantageous. She is a wonderful photographer and a wonderful person. She was the first photographer laureate of the Netherlands, but remains the soul of modesty and gentlewomanliness.

  6. Dear Gary,

    Firstly, thank you for all your scholarly reports and updates that I have enjoyed reading since subscribing to your newsletter, which I have become a bit more learned about what it takes to do due diligence in research.

    By the way, on another note, here’s today’s op ed on Joe Biden’s leadership gone south and why it matters to the everyday American.


    Respectfully Yours,

    1. Many thanks, Vickie, for the assurance that my writings matter to you. Helps them matter to me.

      Thanks too for the link to Bret Stephens’s dispiriting op ed, which adds so many pertinent factors that should convince the Democratic Party to back another candidate. Just having checked with Bing, I see that the New York Times has 4,400 times more subscribers than the Schwartzlist, which should increase the chances of getting the point across.


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