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NYC's Met Museum sued over Van Gogh painting allegedly looted by Nazis

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is facing a new lawsuit over a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that was allegedly looted by Nazis in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is facing a new lawsuit over a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that was allegedly looted by Nazis in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation

Dec. 22 (UPI) -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is facing a new lawsuit over a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that was allegedly looted by Nazis in the 1930s.

The lawsuit obtained by UPI was filed in a U.S. federal court in California last week by nine heirs of Hedwig Stern, a Jewish collector who fled Nazi Germany in 1936, and also names the Athens-based Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation as defendants.

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Stern's heirs allege that Van Gogh's 1889 post-impressionist oil painting The Olive Picking was acquired in 1956 by The Met, which hid problems with the work's provenance -- a term used in the art world to describe the tracking of such artifacts as they change hands over time.

The lawsuit alleges that the Gestapo barred Stern from exporting the painting and artworks after she fled for Berkeley, Calif., in 1936 and appointed her former attorney Kurt Mosbacher as a trustee. Nazi officials appointed such trustees to sell property seized from Jews.

In recounting the painting's provenance, Stern's heirs alleged that Mosbacher sold the painting and another by French impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir to a German collector named Theodor Werner for 55,000 Reichsmarks in April 1938. Stern allegedly never received compensation for the sale.

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According to the University of California in Santa Barbara, a German Mark in 1938 was worth $1, meaning that the painting was sold for around $22,088 -- or $466,371 after adjusting for inflation.

Stern's heirs are seeking recovery of the piece or damages "equal to the actual value of the painting." Stern's heirs allege that Werner did return another artwork looted from her, a painting by French realist Gustave Courbet, in 1955 but not did return the Renoir or Van Gogh.

The Van Gogh painting was transported to Paris around January 1948 and, from there, allegedly to New York City where it was sold to Vincent Astor, the son of John Jacob Astor IV.

Astor, of the famed Astor family, then sold the painting to The Met in January 1956. Stern's heirs believe Theodore Rousseau, then the chief curator at The Met, "knew or consciously disregarded" that the painting had been looted by the Nazis.

Stern long sought to have the painting returned to her, but it was quietly sold by Rousseau.

Her relatives -- who live in the U.S. and Israel -- allege that they have been in contact with the Goulandris Foundation, which now holds the painting, but have not been able to reach an agreement about its return.

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