The Rothschild Metsu will be offered in the Master Paintings auction in New York on 26 May.
NEW YORK – The Rothschild Metsu is an extraordinary work of art. The front of the canvas is an exquisite example of Metsu’s œuvre at the height of his powers. The back of the work bears mute witness to one of the most significant periods of recent history.
The Rothschild Metsu spent the early years of the 20th century hanging in the magnificent palace built for the Rothschild family by the French architect Jean Girette on Theresianumgasse in the Fourth District of Vienna. The residence was constructed in the French Renaissance style and was intended to show the family’s collection to the best advantage. We know that the Metsu was hanging in the Theresianumgasse Palace by 1903 when Baron Nathaniel von Rothschild was still in residence. After his father’s death in 1911, Baron Alphonse de Rothschild inherited the Metsu and moved into the Palace; hence the work was inventoried in his collection at the Palace in 1934.
At the time of the Anschluss, in March 1938, Baron Alphonse and his English born wife Clarice happened to be in London with their son Albert for the opening of a postage stamp exhibition to which the Baron was a lender. The couple managed to meet up with their daughters in Switzerland before travelling to exile as a family in America. Alphonse died in the US on 1 September 1942.
THE ROTHSCHILD FAMILY COAT OF ARMS (LEFT) AND THE THERESIANUMGASSE PALACE IN VIENNA (RIGHT).
The Metsu was still hanging in the Theresianumgasse residence on 12 March 1938 when the Nazis marched into Vienna and declared Austria a province of the Third Reich. The Rothschild family were early targets of the Nazi authorities and the Palace was sealed on 14 March. Works in the collection, including the Metsu, were soon removed to the central depot of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in the Neue Hofburg in Vienna for “protection.” The Rothschild holdings were so vast that it took several months for the Palace to be emptied. As early as June 1938, Adolf Hitler expressed an interest in Baron Alphonse’s collection and ordered that it be kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum until such time as his curators could decide what should stay in Austria and what should be redistributed within the Reich. So it was that the Metsu came into the custody of the Kusthistorisches Museum.
THE ROTHSCHILD METSU. TO BE OFFERED IN SOTHEBY’S MASTER PAINTINGS SALE ON 26 MAY IN NEW YORK.
In June 1939, Dr Hans Posse was appointed the director of a grandiose museum which Hitler planned to construct in Linz. Hitler’s plan was to turn his home town into a second Budapest with an imperial art museum which would house the best German, Flemish and Italian Old Master paintings as well as arms and armour, books and tapestries. The Führer instructed Dr Posse to select the best Rothschild artworks to adorn his museum, and the Metsu was one of the masterpieces that he selected. After a flurry of correspondence with the Austrian curator Fritz Dvorschak, Dr Posse ordered that the Metsu be transported to the Abbey at Kremsmünster which was used as one of the principal stores for the Linz project. On 16 December 1943, Dr Posse’s successor (Posse had died in 1942) directed that a number of the key works from the Führer’s collection, including the Rothschild Metsu, should be transferred to the Führerbau in Munich (Hitler’s official residence in the city). Later, when these artworks were in danger from Allied bombing, the Metsu was moved for safekeeping to the salt mines in Altaussee.
THE BACK OF THE ROTHSCHILD METSU BEARS MUTE WITNESS TO ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY
PERIODS OF RECENT HISTORY.
The Nazi authorities had determined that Altaussee was the perfect bombproof art refuge. Inside, the conditions were constant, between 40 and 47 degrees and about 65 percent humidity, ideal for storing the stolen art. The deepest tunnels were more than a mile inside the mountain, safe from Allied bombs even if the remote location was discovered. The Germans built floors, walls, and shelving as well as a workshop deep in the chambers.
The Metsu joined over 6,500 other paintings in Altaussee including Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent; Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Art of Painting each of which had been intended to hang with the Metsu in the Linz Museum.
One of the leaders of the Monuments Men, George Stout of the Fogg Museum at Harvard, also noted that there were plans for the demolition of the mine. Two months earlier, Hitler had issued the “Nero Decree,” which stated in part:
All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.
DR. HANS POSSE (LEFT) AND THE FÜHRERBAU, HITLER’S OFFICIAL RESIDENCE IN MUNICH (RIGHT).
The Nazi district leader near Altaussee, August Eigruber, interpreted the Führer’s words as an order to destroy any objects of value, which required the demolition of the mines so the artwork would not fall into enemy hands. He moved eight crates into the mines in April. They were marked “Marble – Do Not Drop,” but actually contained 1,100 pound bombs.
Eigruber’s plans were thwarted – largely because of the bravery of the local mineworkers. The mine director convinced Eigruber to set smaller charges to augment the bombs, then ordered the bombs removed without the district leader’s knowledge. On 3 May, shortly before the Allies arrived, the local miners removed the large bombs. By the time Eigruber learned, it was too late. Two days later, the small charges were fired, closing the mine’s entrances, sealing the art safely inside.
After the occupation of Altaussee on 8 May 1945 by an American infantry unit, the art depot was placed under the control of the Monuments Men. The artworks from the salt mines were taken to the newly founded Collecting Point in Munich that had been set up in former National Socialist Buildings in Munich – including the former Führerbau – to inventory and ultimately return works of art that had been looted, confiscated or sold in the art trade during the war. The Rothschild Metsu arrived at the Collecting Point on 15 July 1945. After having been inventoried, photographed and identified as the property of the Rothschild family, it was returned to Vienna on 27 November 1945.
WORKS OF ART STORED IN THE SALT MINES IN ALTAUSSEE.
The Baroness von Rothschild, the former Clarice Sebag-Montefiore, was determined to recover her collections and export them to her new home in the United States. She was granted export licenses for the bulk of her collection but only on condition she donated a number of her most important works of the collection to the Austrian state. Thus it was that in 1948 the Rothschild Metsu and some 250 other highlights from the Rothschild collections entered the inventory of Viennese museums, including the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Under the restitution laws introduced in Austria in 1998 the Rothschild family was able to reclaim the paintings they had unwillingly donated in 1948 and so it was that the Rothschild Metsu came back to the family and was sold in 1999 and purchased by the present owner.