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Amsterdam Museum Repatriates Matisse Painting to Holocaust Victim's Heirs

Stedelijk Museum Restitutes "Odalisque" to Heirs of Jewish Art Collector

In a landmark decision, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum announced it will return a Henri Matisse painting to the heirs of its former Jewish owner, Albert Stern, who was forced to sell the artwork during the Holocaust. The painting “Odalisque,” created in the 1920s, has been part of the museum’s collection since July 1941.

Albert Stern, a successful textile manufacturer and art collector, was born in 1861. His company was one of Germany’s leading ladies' clothing manufacturers with branches in New York, London, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. The company's former headquarters in Berlin now houses the German Federal Ministry of Justice.

Research into the painting’s provenance led the Dutch Restitutions Committee to conclude that the sale was coerced by the Nazi regime, which had systematically stripped the Stern family of their possessions and livelihoods. The committee advised the museum to return the painting to Stern’s legal successors, and the Amsterdam City Council has agreed to follow this advisement.

After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Stern and his family faced severe persecution. The Nazis expropriated Stern's business, home, and assets, forcing the family to flee Germany. They sought refuge in the Netherlands in 1937, but following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, they were again subjected to persecution. The family was forced to sell their remaining possessions in a desperate attempt to survive and escape.

The Sterns’ plight intensified as they tried, unsuccessfully, to secure visas to the United States, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, Uruguay, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic. Eventually, they were arrested and deported to various Nazi concentration camps. Albert Stern died in the Laufen internment camp in January 1945. Only his wife and two grandchildren survived.

“The return of the Matisse is a moving and overwhelming moment for us all,” Stern’s heirs said in a statement. They recalled their grandparents’ love for art, music, and theater, which enriched their lives and now finds recognition after decades. The family expressed their gratitude for the acknowledgment and symbolic justice brought by the restitution.

Rein Wolfs, director of the Stedelijk Museum, expressed support for the committee’s decision. “This artwork represents a very sad history and is connected to the unspeakable suffering inflicted on this family. The ruling of the Restitutions Committee does justice to this history, and we naturally follow their binding advice.”

Touria Meliani, Amsterdam’s alderman of culture, emphasized the moral obligation to rectify the injustices of the past. “Jewish citizens have had their property, rights, dignity, and in many cases their lives taken away. The return of works of art, such as the ‘Odalisque’ painting, can mean a lot to the victims and is of great importance for the recognition of the injustice done to them.”

This decision marks a significant step in addressing the historical wrongs inflicted upon Jewish families during World War II, providing a measure of restitution and acknowledgment for the heirs of Albert Stern.

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