Alfred and Marie Weinberger escaped Nazi-occupied Paris at the onset of World War II, but they couldn’t take their paintings with them.
The Jewish couple fled to the French Alps and left their paintings — several by Pierre-Auguste Renoir — sequestered in a Paris bank vault. One was “Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin (Two Women in a Garden),” one of the last paintings Renoir made before he died in 1919, when his rheumatoid arthritis was so severe he had to tie the paintbrush to his hand to grip it.
The Weinbergers would never see it again. On Dec. 4, 1941, the Nazis plundered Weinberger’s collection.
Alfred Weinberger would spend much of his life trying to get his paintings back. And he would find some — but never Renoir’s “Two Women in a Garden.” It would instead travel around the world, changing hands and eluding the Weinberger family. Then, in 2010, Weinberger’s granddaughter, Sylvie Sulitzer, with German attorneys, set out to recover the missing 1919 Renoir.
After years of investigation involving the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, Sulitzer finally laid eyes on the painting Wednesday. She flew to New York from France for the first time to see the painting unveiled at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
“The extraordinary journey that this small work of art has made around the world and through time ends today,” said William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York field office, “when we get to return it to Alfred Weinberger’s last remaining heir: his granddaughter, Sylvie Sulitzer.”
Before Sulitzer discovered its existence, the painting had traveled out of Nazi hands to private collections in multiple countries, Sweeney said.
In 1942, it landed in the possession of the Nazis’ Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazi task force responsible for pillaging and hoarding cultural artifacts from Jews and other enemies. The painting didn’t reemerge until 1975, when it surfaced at an art sale in Johannesburg, authorities said. It changed hands and traveled from there to London and then Zurich.
Then, in 2010, Sulitzer got a phone call. It was from lawyers in Berlin who were on a mission to return Nazi-stolen artifacts to their rightful owners, including Sulitzer’s family, she said Wednesday. They were wondering whether Sulitzer knew of her grandfather’s missing “Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin.”
This was the first time she was hearing about it, she said. Her grandfather had never talked about the stolen paintings, she said, because he never talked about the war. “As far as I can remember, nobody ever spoke about the war,” she said at a news conference Wednesday. “It was taboo.”
But she immediately agreed with the lawyers that she wanted to find it, she said.
The mission to track down the rightful owners of the looted paintings had been aided that same year by the creation of an online database that organized all of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg task force’s detailed records about the artifacts they stole, said Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. attorney of the Southern District of New York.
Among the stolen artifacts was Alfred Weinberger’s missing “Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin.”
“The ERR meticulously registered and identified the artworks that were plundered, including providing detailed descriptions and even photographing them, leaving behind a detailed record of the works that they stole,” Berman said. “It’s a grim irony that these records, recently made publicly available online, have provided a path for victims and heirs to seek justice.”
In 2013, the lawyers helping Sulitzer had a hit on the painting: It popped up for sale at a Christie’s auction in New York, Berman said.
It had been in New York since at least 2005, when it appeared for sale at Sotheby’s. A 2009 Sotheby’s listingoffers a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 to $200,000 for the 1919 Renoir.
Federal authorities in New York began investigating. And Sulitzer made her claim.
“When you’re just a French woman living somewhere in the south of France, and then you hear the FBI is investigating, well, you can imagine, it’s a shock,” Sulitzer said at the news conference at the museum, where she was joined by law enforcement and museum officials. The discovery of the painting, she said, “brought me back when I was a young girl living with my grandfather, my mom and her brother. It’s more the symbol of the life I had with them.”
Sweeney and Berman said the owner of the painting, who was not disclosed, voluntarily relinquished it. Authorities would not speculate on the current value of the painting.
The painting will remain on display temporarily at the Museum of Jewish Heritage before it’s returned to Sulitzer. She said she would love to keep it, but she may have to put it up for auction for financial reasons.
Her grandfather had filed a restitution claim after the war in 1947, registering his losses with the government. In later decades, Sulitzer said she benefited from French restitution laws that compensate victims whose families’ belongings were stolen during World War II. Once the belongings are discovered, the victims must repay the government, she said, and she will need to come up with the money.
But even having it just for a time, she said, has meant more than any famous painting might be worth. Choking back tears, she said, “I’m very thankful to be able to show my beloved family, wherever they are, that after all that they’ve been through, there is a justice.”