L ONDON – Richard Aronowitz was appointed Sotheby’s European Head of Restitution in 2006 and since then has been worked on some fascinating cases – reuniting many works with their rightful owners. Here, he tells us the poignant story behind one particular Old Master painting.
(LEFT) ABRAHAM VAN BEYEREN, A STILL LIFE WITH GRAPES AND PEACHES IN A SILVER TAZZA, 1660–1674
One of my most moving discoveries was back in 2008 when we uncovered a painting that had been missing from the collection of the Jaffe family since they lost it to Nazi looting in 1941.
This intimate still-life by Abraham Van Beyeren was consigned to Sotheby’s London by a young German living in London who had inherited it from his parents, who in turn had bought it on the European art market in the 1950s. Both he and his parents had known nothing of its pre-war provenance.
The Jaffe family emigrated to England from Germany shortly before the war, having sent their Old Master paintings collection to what they thought would be the safety of a museum storage in Leiden in Holland, not knowing of course that Holland would be occupied by the Germans in 1940 – and their collection would be looted from its place of supposed safety, alongside so many other private and museum collections in the country.
(RIGHT) THE JAFFES’ ABRAHAM VAN BEYEREN STILL-LIFE AS PICTURED IN THE FAMILY’S PRE-WAR BERLIN PHOTOGRAPH ALBUM
The two Jaffe heirs, both elderly men when I discovered one of their family’s still-missing paintings, were overjoyed at the discovery of the Van Beyeren after 70 years and one of them had tears in his eyes when he saw the painting for the first time in the London Old Master Paintings basement. The brothers agreed to purchase it back for a modest 'finder’s fee' from its young owner, a solution to which he readily agreed.
Thus the painting never came for sale at Sotheby’s, but it was a conclusion to a traumatic and turbulent history that I remember very clearly to this day.