The National Gallery of Victoria seems unruffled in the wake of demands for the return of an artwork in its collection pilfered by the Nazis during World War II.

The painting, Lady with a Fan, by the Dutch artist Gerard ter Borch, is valued between $100,000 and $1 million. It is claimed that the painting was stolen from the Emden family in the 1930s.

But the acting director of the NGV, Tony Ellwood, seems philosophical about the claim.

“There are artworks in the collection where we lack the full provenance and where the identity of the original owner is lacking. But we have always been fully transparent about that. It’s all on our website.”

Ellwood says that there is an existing process to scrutinise and verify such claims.
Indeed, the NGV’s website makes its stance clear: “In recent years, there has been worldwide interest… to clarify the provenance of works of art during the period of systematic looting and confiscation undertaken by the Nazi regime from 1933-45. To this end, the NGV is the first Australian gallery to draw particular public attention to a number of works which, for many possible reasons, have gaps in the provenance during the critical years of 1933-45.”

The painting is claimed to have belonged to Jewish retail magnate Max Emden, who fled Hamburg ahead of the Nazis, leaving much of his massive art collection behind. The claim is being made by Emden’s grandson, Chile-based Juan Carlos Emden, who was quoted in this morning’s Australian as stating in his request that: “There is no doubt that the painting was aryanised from the Max Emden collection in or about 1938.”

Deliberate destruction of collection records was common during the Second World War as families attempted to hide their possessions. Thus, for many reasons complete provenance research during this era is often difficult and sometimes impossible.

The Gallery has been active on this issue for some years. In a paper delivered by Laurie Benson, Assistant Curator of International Art in 2001 on issues of spoliation, she stated that, given that the NGV has the largest collection of European paintings in the country, the gallery “is logically the most likely to be affected by issues emanating from spoliation. So… policies had to be framed to deal with a possible third party title claim against a work in the collection.”

The Gallery is in the process of preparing a formal response to the claim.

Peter Fray

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