On Monday, the Museum of Fine Arts announced plans to make restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed in the Holocaust after determining that a 17th century Dutch painting housed in the permanent collection at the Boston museum was seized by Nazis in World War II. The image in question is an oil portrait of a wealthy couple seated in their living room, created in the late 1600s by Eglon van der Neer. Though the MFA Boston acquired it for $7,500 back in 1941 from a New York art dealer, the painting is now valued at nearly $550,000.
Though stories like this always carry a tinge of sadness and unease—considering the bloody history of such a simple object—it seems like the MFA handled the circumstances in best way it could: with complete transparency. Unlike several other institutions, including the Leopold Museum in Vienna and the MoMA in New York, the MFA Boston was proactive in making the truth known. According to an article in The Boston Globe, the MFA Boston published an image of the painting online back in 2000, along with six other pieces, asking for additional information about the work and divulging their own questions about its history. With a little help from Google, a heir of the original owner, Walter Westfeld, found the piece and began working with the MFA Boston’s curator to discover exactly where the 29-by-27-inch canvas came from.
With the help of Westfeld’s relatives, the MFA Boston has been able to piece together certain bits of information to form a (somewhat) complete picture. As it turns out, the van deer Neer was most likely seized from Westfeld before he was taken off to Auschwitz. Back in 1941, when they first acquired the piece, the MFA Boston was told only that it was “brought to this country by a refugee some time ago.” However, in 1943, the museum became aware of the possibility that it was not what it originally seemed. A French dealer named Robert Lebel contacted the museum and explained that he had sold it to Westfeld a few years prior, and that the rightful owner (Walter Westfeld) was seized shortly thereafter, along with all of his possessions. Though there is no way to be completely certain that Westfeld didn’t sell it of his own volition, museum officials concluded that it was extremely unlikely.
Anyone who reads this recognizes the inherent sadness in the painting’s violent past, but it is important to remember how much it means to the family that the MFA Boston was willing to be open and honest about its collection—and open and honest with its pocketbook. The descendants of Walter Westfeld (now known as Westfields) have had a difficult time locating Walter’s original possessions. In recent years, they have tried everything from suing the German government for restitution to appealing to American lawyers for aid. Though there really isn’t a “happy ending,” it seems that everything is finally as it should be. The art will continue to educate generations of viewers, and the Westfeld family will finally have some small form of justice granted to them.
“We feel very good and very thankful for how the museum dealt with us,’’ Fred Westfield told The Boston Globe. “We had a lot of help from some of the people at the museum over the years, once we started to claim that the painting really did belong to us.’’