The Hunt for the Missing Van Gogh
Mystery writer Lynne Kennedy is on the hunt for a painting by Vincent van Gogh, which vanished during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.
While researching her latest novel, Kennedy learned that the oil on canvas, called Still Life: Vase with Oleanders, sometimes called Vase on Yellow Background, disappeared in 1944. Inspired by this extraordinary story, Kennedy penned Deadly Provenance and created a fictional solution to the missing artwork. In reality, the painting remains lost.
With the recent release of her book, Kennedy hopes to re-energize the search for the missing Van Gogh. Through the Internet’s global community, she is enlisting the help of the public worldwide to track down its fate. Anyone who has knowledge of the lost painting is urged to get in touch with her using the contact form below.
What Facts are Known?
Before the war, the painting was on display in the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris, owned by a French Jewish family. In 1940, the family suspected that they were going to be targeted by the Nazis. They packed up 30 or so of the paintings from their gallery, including Vase with Oleanders, and gave them to family friends at the Château de Rastignac, a country house near Bordeaux. More interesting details about the Château can be found here. In 1941, their gallery was, indeed, raided and their paintings and building were confiscated. On March 30, 1944, Nazis raided the Château, looting as much as they could before burning the building to the ground. It is unknown whether the Bernheim-Jeune’s paintings were destroyed or stolen, but they have not been seen since.
Witnesses to the event declared that the Germans carried packages of every size out of the Château and loaded them onto Nazi trucks. Was the Van Gogh canvas rolled up and secreted away?
The Hunt Begins…
As a former science center director, Kennedy has a wealth of contacts in the museum community. She has already begun tapping those resources at the Getty in Los Angeles and the Van Gogh Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Their information is sketchy, but Kennedy is not deterred.
She has acquired leads from the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) in Washington, D.C. which she is currently following up on. According to HARP, information might be obtained from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, where family losses are recorded, and the Archives Nationales, which houses materials in the General Commissariat records.
She will also be tracing records from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, the Nazi agency tasked with the confiscation of art from “undesirables.” The records are voluminous, with hundreds of thousands of displaced artworks listed from myriad countries.
Of note, the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, the leader of the ERR, has recently been uncovered. Could he have alluded to particular art pieces in these pages? Kennedy hopes to confirm this when the diary reaches its eventual destination at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C..
Other avenues of investigation are underway and as new information unfolds, Kennedy will make it public. If and when the work is found, it will be returned it to its rightful owners and, after 70 years, be made visible to the world..
Through contact with Dr. Jonathan Petropoulos, John V. Croul Professor of European History, Claremont McKenna College, Kennedy will be following up on new leads. First, the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) in Koblenz, Germany, where the Bernheim name appears on their collection lists. Second, an art dealer by the name of Walter Feilchenfeldt in Switzerland, who has expertise in authenticating Van Goghs and has extensive knowledge of looted art. And third, Nancy Yeide’s (Smithsonian National Gallery of Art) catalogue raisonne on Hermann Goering’s art collection.
Progress Update September, 2013:
Lynne Kennedy Interviews and Other News
San Diego Union Tribune – On September 6, an article appeared on Kennedy’s hunt for the Van Gogh. Written by columnist Pete Rowe, it actually turned up on the front page, above the fold, with an attractive headline and artwork. Here is a link to the article.
KPBS – Lynne Kennedy had the honor to interview on KPBS Midday Edition with Maureen Cavanaugh on September 4 about her hunt for the missing Van Gogh. Here is a link to the interview.
Latest Art News – Van Gogh painting “Sunset at Montmajour” discovered in Norwegian Attic. Perhaps “Vase With Oleanders” will be next! Here is a link to the article.
On August 20, 2013 Kennedy sent out a press release about the Hunt to national media outlets. As of August 22, 2013, 125 outlets had picked it up including the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, and the San Diego Union/Tribune and the Sacramento Bee. Clearly there is interest in the subject matter, even 70 years after WWII.
Following up on former leads, Kennedy has heard from the Federal Archives in Koblenz, Germany. Here is the original note in German and its English translation. The next step is the Magdeburg coordinator for Cultural Assets.
Sehr geehrte Frau Kennedy,
fOr lhr freundliches Schreiben vom 14. Aug. 2013 danke ich Ihnen. Geme habe ich die dem Bundesarchiv Koblenz zur Verfugung stehende Oberlieferung der Treuhandverwaltung fur Kulturgut (Aktenbestand B 323) auf lhre Fragestellung hin OberprOft. Leider mit ganzlich negativem Ergebnis: es liegen hier keinerlei lnformationen zu dem genannten Ge- malde Vincent van Goghs vor.Sehr bedaure ich,Ihnen in diesem Fall nicht weiterhelfen zu konnen. Unter Umstanden ist eine Kontaktaufnahme mit der Magdeburger Koordinationsstelle filr Kulturgutverluste (www.lostart.de) noch hilf- reich. Dazu wOnsche ichIhnen viel Erfolg.
Mit freundlichen GrOssen
Dear Ms. Kennedy,
Thank you very much for your kind letter of 14. August, 2013. It was my pleasure to check the trust management for cultural assets (record inventory B 323), which is available to the Federal Archive Koblenz, regarding your inquiry. Unfortunately, with a completely negative result: There is not a single piece of information as it relates to this painting by Vincent Van Gogh. I regret not being able to be of further assistance in this case. It might be possible that the Cultural Assets Coordination Bureau in Magdeburg (www.lostart.de) might be of help. I hope you will be successful.
On behalf of
The other lead to Van Gogh art expert, Mr. Walter Feilchenfeldt in Zurich, was, unfortunately, a dead end. However, although he provided no new avenues of investigation, Mr. Feilchenfeldt was very supportive and encouraged Kennedy to keep up the pursuit. His note was in excellent English.
In addition some interesting new leads have come up. Kennedy contacted Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, editor of The Spoils of War, who was able to connect her to the one author she’d been hoping to link with: Lynn Nicolas, author of The Rape of Europa.
Lynn Nicholas responded right away and was very encouraging ( and even said she would read Deadly Provenance.) To quote Ms. Nicholas: “A great project — I am not sure you will find the painting, but doing the research will be fun — but watch out, it is very addictive.” Kennedy heartily agrees. Ms. Nicholas felt Kennedy’s leads were good. She felt that “if the painting is still extant it is likely in a private collection somewhere and will only come to light when whoever it might be decides to sell.” On an entertaining note, Ms. Nicholas suggested that garage sales are a very likely place—that or very small auctions.”
To that end, Kennedy hopes to contact friends living in Paris and journey there to do a garage sale excursion sometime in the future. Anyone want to join?
Alfred Rosenberg’s diary is destined to reach the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. in September. Kennedy will be following up at that time with her museum contact.
The hunt continues…
Photos left to right: Nazi Art Train, Hitler in Paris, James Rorimer-Monuments Man
Edsel, Robert M., (author,) Witter, Brett (contributor,) The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,
Center St. Publishers, 2010
Feliciano, Hector, The Lost Museum, Basic Books (Perseus,) 1995, updated edition, 1997
Nicholas, Lynn H., The Rape of Europa, Vintage Books (Random House,) 1994
Petropoulos, Jonathan, Ph.D., The Faustian Bargain, The Art World in Nazi Germany, Oxford University Press, 2000
Simpson, Elizabeth, Editor, The Spoils of War, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, in association with The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1997