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.
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.
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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