A detective story unfolds, as a painting returns home

Peter van den Brink is pretty pleased. He is director of the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany. From Monday 10th of July 2017, his museum is able to exhibit a painting which has returned home. 

Adèle Cockerill, related to the museum’s founder Barthold Suermondt, donated the painting. It was her bequest to the museum, in 1910. It shows a still-life, created by Balthasar van der Ast centuries ago.

The Aachen van der Ast

Van der Ast worked in Utrecht and Delft, during the Dutch Golden Age. He is known for his still-lives. These can be found in museums including the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the National Gallery in London, private collections – and now the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum again.

The Aachen painting shows flowers arranged in an expensive Chinese Wan-Li vase. Such porcelain was imported by the Dutch VOC from China to the Dutch Republic. Van der Ast created the painting on an oak panel between 1625 and 1630.

The detective story starts in 1942. Nazis ruled and the Second World War raged. Works of art, including this painting, were taken from museums and stored in safe places like the Albrechtsburg in Meissen.

Towards the end of the war, American troops occupied the castle and area. However, they handed over castle and area to the Soviet army in 1945. What happened next, is not totally clear.

The painting and other art were stored together. The Red Army plundered the castle. Most of the looted art ended up in the Soviet Union. Yet the van der Ast was never there.

In 1965, a book was published, called “Verlohrene Werke der Malerei“, a kind of catalogue of lost German art. “Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase” was included. Using old glass negatives, a black-and-white, page-size image was reproduced in the book – though perhaps  incorrectly. Unfortunately, the book was also never translated from German, nor known outside Germany.

The Mauritshuis van der Ast

In 1990, the Mauritshuis organized an exhibition called “Great Dutch paintings from America”. The exhibition catalogue listed a twin of the Aachen “Wan-Li Vase”. Experts presumed the exhibited painting had been created using a mirror, with the Aachen van der Ast as original source.

In 1965, Dutch collector Sidney J. van der Bergh added the painting to his private collection. He lent paintings to exhibitions and this painting was regularly exhibited. Experts knew it, but were unaware the Aachen painting was missing.

The 1990 exhibition solved one mystery. It became clear, a large part of the Aachen museum’s collection was missing since 1945, including its van der Ast. Yet there was no provenance problem with the van der Bergh painting.

Its provenance stated the painting was owned by a London art dealer called Slatter in 1945. So no reason to wonder if the privately owned and missing painting were one and the same. Until 2004, when clever, meticulous Louisa Freytag v. Loringhoven carefully studied the Art Loss Register in London. She discovered the provenance was incorrect.

Not that she was the first to wonder. As early as 1997, another expert called F.G Meijer claimed the privately owned painting was the missing Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum one. He based his claim on comparisons of photos of the back of the oak panel.

His claim and the incorrect provenance, finally led to further detective work. It turned out that before being bought by van den Bergh in 1955, the painting was owned by a New York art dealer called Victor Spark.

Spark’s ledger revealed he bought the painting in 1952 from Kenneth Saltmarche, owner of the Gallery of Fine Arts in Windsor, in Ontario. Spark sold the painting to an unknown buyer within five months of acquiring it, but did not record a name.

Saltmarche had bought three painting from a Mrs. Siano in Ontario, Canada, in 1954. These paintings turned out to be part of the German Suermondt-Museum collection. One of these paintings was returned to the museum in 2015.

Mrs. Siano, or rather Alice Tittel, left Germany in 1951. Her luggage contained twelve paintings. Ten of these actually belonged to the Suermondt-museum. As early as 1954, the German consulate in Toronto was warned, Mrs. Siano was selling art which belonged to museums in Aachen and Dresden.

The German consulate was told, she once worked for the Soviet secret police and had stolen the paintings from the Albrechtsburg. From the Albrechtsburg, she traveled to Berlin. There she started working for the American army. This enabled her to migrate to the US and then Canada.

Alice Siano was confronted with these accusations. She produced a German export and Canadian import license. An art expert and dealer was asked for advise, for people could not just export valuable art from Germany.

The art expert was none other than Saltmarche, who cast doubts on the claims the paintings were valuable and belonged to German museums. According to him, the paintings were of inferior quality and could therefore not belong to German museums. Inferior quality also meant a lower value, which made the export-import licenses valid.

Saltmarche and Siano knew each other. It is now presumed the paintings entered Canada illegally and their subsequent sale was a scam. For Siano sold three paintings to Spark and Saltmarche sold him the van der Ast.

Spark himself may have acted in good faith. Slatter may have been his unrecorded buyer. Slatter then sold the van der Ast to van den Bergh. This is suggested by a Mr. de Vries who put together a catalogue of van den Bergh’s collection in 1968.

In 1973, an American collector bought the painting from a dealer who acted on behalf of van den Bergh. It was exhibited at the Mauritshuis. Sixteen years after the exhibition, the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum approached the American collector.

Negotiations about the painting’s return dragged on for over a decade. Finally, the City of Aachen stepped in and persuaded the collector to return the painting for a finder’s fee. Such a fee is 10 percent of the value of a work of art. The van der Ast is estimated to be worth over $ four million. The fee was raised by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, the Kulturstiftung der Länder, the State of Nordrhein-Westfalen, the City of Aachen itself, as well as private funders.

Thanks to art detective work, tenacity, financial generosity, the painting returned to Germany. After nearly three-quarters of a century, van der Alst’s “Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase” can be admired again in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen – to which it was left as a gift in 1910, by generous Adèle Cockerill.

This museum was lucky. According to director Peter van den Brink, hundreds of works of art are still missing after the Second World War.

Monuments Men Foundation
The Art Loss Register


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