In the upcoming Old Masters Evening Sale in London on 4 July, Sotheby’s will offer for sale one of the finest surviving works by Dutch Golden Age master, Jacob Ochtervelt. Looted from a bank vault during World War II, The Oyster Meal, a superb example of Dutch 17th-century genre painting, was recently returned to the heirs of its rightful wartime owner. Estimated at £1.5–2.5 million, the painting will feature among the highlights of the London sale.
A contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, Ochtervelt (1634-1682) was one of the leading Dutch painters of high-life genre scenes of the 1650s and 1660s. Celebrated for his sensitive renderings of clothing, complexion and body language, he excelled in his ability to capture the effects of light and colour and the sheen of fabrics, as epitomised in The Oyster Meal. Throughout his career, Ochtervelt chose to focus on high-life subjects and the pleasures of patrician life, particularly favouring themes of flirtation and love. While the subject of The Oyster Meal was treated by a number of leading genre painters of the day (including Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen and Frans van Mieris), Ochtervelt’s rendering of the subject ranks among the most accomplished examples of its kind.
The painting was part of the collection of prominent Dutch financier Henri Louis Bischoffsheim (1829-1908), and hung for many years at Bute House (now the Egyptian Embassy) in Mayfair, London. In the 1930s The Oyster Meal was acquired in Holland by an eminent Dutch collector, Dr Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder. By the time war broke out, he had amassed an exceptional collection of over 25 important Old Master paintings, including works by Jacob de Wit, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan van Huysum and Caspar Netscher.
Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Dr Smidt van Gelder’s illustrious collection was quickly identified as of interest to the Nazis. Fearing that his paintings might ultimately be taken from him, Dr Smidt van Gelder took 14 of his most treasured works to the Amsterdam Bank in Arnhem, where he deposited them in a vault for safekeeping. On 17 September 1944, the Allied troops were dropped north of Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden — an attempt to advance into Germany through the Lower Rhine. The battle that followed raged for ten days, at the end of which the defeated Allies finally withdrew, having lost three-quarters of their men. During the course of the battle, German soldiers ordered the residents of Arnhem to evacuate the city, and immediately began to plunder and loot houses, shops and buildings, destroying any property that could not be carried away.
After the retreat of the Allies, the plundering continued, and in early 1945 the vaults of the Amsterdam Bank were broken open and the contents looted. Dr Smidt van Gelder’s paintings, including the Ochtervelt, then disappeared without trace. Despite his enormous efforts after the war to locate his paintings, Dr Smidt van Gelder never saw The Oyster Meal again. Its whereabouts remained unknown until just three years ago, when the painting was identified by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe whom the family had asked to represent them and find and recover their still missing paintings. The Commission then arranged for Mrs Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, the 97-year-old daughter of Dr Smidt van Gelder, to travel to London to view the work, which she immediately recognised as the one that had hung over the mantlepiece in her father’s waiting room.
Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck said: “I vividly remember The Oyster Meal hanging in our family home in Arnhem before the war. The painting’s recovery after all these years has been very meaningful to my family. For me, its return brought to life again my father and his extraordinary collection, while also recollecting the heroic efforts of the Allied forces in World War ll, which helped save our way of life so many years ago.”
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