Ulster Museum’s brush with the Nazis exposes a dark world of art skulduggery
As the Ulster Museum heaves a sigh of relief after finding out that one its masterpieces was not part of a priceless art collection stolen by the Nazis, other museums around the world are still looking nervously over their shoulders or counting the cost of being duped.
An investigation by leading art historian Tom van der Molen in Amsterdam confirmed the Ulster Museum’s painting St Christopher Carrying the Christ Child by Jacob Jordaens was not part of a wartime art haul by Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.
Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe and a favourite of Hitler, fancied himself as an art critic and plundered private and public collections across occupied Europe, with many stolen items never being seen again.
While the museum in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens counts its blessings, other venerable institutions have not been so lucky, with many unwittingly inheriting Nazi loot or being the victim of thieves, fraudsters and con merchants.
The SMU Meadows Museum, in Dallas, Texas, was devastated to learn some of its most prominent works were part of one of the largest Nazi art heists in the world.
Other stolen pieces are bought in good faith by reputable foundations. In 1941, Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s Spanish masterpieces Saint Justa and Saint Rufin were stolen from the Rothschild family along with a portrait, Queen Marian, by Diego Velazquez.
The theft was discovered by Robert Edsel, the director of Monuments Men Foundation in Dallas and the paintings were then returned to the families before being donated back to the museum.
Interpol reports the theft of cultural items is widespread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, with many still unrecovered.
In 2010, paintings valued at £86m by masters such as Picasso and Matisse were stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
The Concert by Dutch artist Jan Vermeers was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Museum in 1990. The reward for its safe return is $5,000,000.
An abstract oil canvas by Pablo Picasso was stolen in 1999 from a yacht moored in the French port of Antibes and Lucian Freud’s 1951 painting of Francis Bacon valued at $1.4m was stolen from Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
Belfast Telegraph art critic Liz Baird said she was very pleased to hear the Jacob Jordaens work was not stolen and would remain in Belfast.
“I am delighted for the Ulster Museum,” she said. “It’s a lovely piece and one of their largest exhibits. I am sure they are relieved.”
In 1966, the Ulster Museum bought the painting — executed by the leading Flemish artist around 1625-30 — for £9,000, with the aid of a grant from the National Art Collections Fund.
Archive material revealed the Ulster Museum painting indeed once belonged to Dutch Jewish art collector Jacques Goudstikker and his family, but correspondence from Goudstikker’s widow, Desi von Saher detailed the painting was sold in March 1965.
Mr van der Molen said the Ulster Museum can be confident its powerful example of Flemish baroque was not part of Goering’s haul.
Jim McGreevy, director of collections and interpretations at the National Museums Northern Ireland said: “We are very pleased that the research undertaken has demonstrated the painting arrived at the Ulster Museum legitimately and legally. It remains on our top 10 must see items.”
Chris Caldwell, director of Tom Caldwell Gallery, on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast said people in the art world use their instincts to guide them. He said they know very quickly if there is something not right about a piece of art or the person selling it.
“I use my gut feeling about these matters and there is a fairly good network of information available,” he said.
“Thankfully, we haven’t had the offer of stolen work for decades. Unique pieces are very difficult to get rid of if they have been stolen.”