On Wednesday, September 12, the Museum hosted an art restitution ceremony in which a Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting was returned to its rightful owner. The excerpted remarks below were given by Geoffrey Berman, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, at the start of the ceremony.
Today it is my distinct privilege to be able to restore to its rightful owner a painting looted by the Nazis during World War II.
The painting we are returning today, titled Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin, was painted in 1919 by Pierre Auguste Renoir, one of the masters of French impressionism.
Deux Femmes was looted from the private collection of Alfred and Marie Weinberger in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Since that time, the painting has changed hands numerous times, making its way around the world, until it arrived here in New York. And today, after three quarters of a century, we are finally able to return this work to its rightful owner, the Weinbergers’ sole remaining heir, their grandchild Sylvie Sulitzer. And we are thrilled to have Madame Sulitzer here as our guest of honor. She flew from Paris just to be here for the ceremony.
Also here with us is Robert Morganthau, the iconic former US Attorney for the SDNY and Manhattan DA. More on Mr. Morganthau later.
Next to Mr. Morganthau’s is Bill Sweeney, Assistant Director in charge of the FBI’s NY Field Office.
I also want to recognize the Consul General of Israel in New York, Ambassador Danny Dayan. Ambassador, thank you for coming.
Now, back to the painting. The work itself, painted in the last year of Renoir’s life, is a fine example of his later landscapes.
As early as 1910, Renoir was suffering from severe arthritis. Despite searing pain in his joints, Renoir continued to paint—sometimes with a brush tied to his hand because he could not otherwise hold it. This would have been one of the last works that Renoir completed before his death.
Alfred Weinberger was an avid and prominent art collector in pre-war Paris. He acquired Deux Femmes, along with a number of other Renoir paintings, in 1925.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Weinbergers fled Paris to Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps, storing their collection of paintings at Morgan Bank in Paris.
On December 4, 1941, the Weinberger collection was seized by the Nazis, and on September 10, 1942, the collection was transferred to the Jeu de Paume, a pre-war museum in Paris controlled by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or “ERR”. The ERR was created by the Nazis to confiscate on a massive scale artworks and other cultural holdings of Jews and other enemies of the Third Reich. The ERR meticulously registered and identified the artworks that it plundered, including providing detailed descriptions of those works, and even photographing them, leaving behind a detailed record of the works that they stole.
It is a grim irony that these records, recently made publicly available online, have provided a path for surviving victims and their heirs to seek justice.
Since 2010, Madame Sulitzer has actively sought to recover the stolen works from her grandfather’s collection. When Madame Sulitzer learned in 2013 that Deux Femmes was being put up for auction at Christies, she made a claim to the work. After an investigation by my office and the FBI, the purported owner of the work voluntarily agreed to relinquish its claim to Deux Femmes, and, as a result, we are able to return the painting to Madame Sulitzer today.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team played an important role in investigating Madame Sulitzer’s claim, and securing the painting’s voluntary return.
One reason that we hold these events upon the return of missing or stolen artworks is to celebrate these agents’ dedication and proficiency, and to get the word out to the public that the FBI’s team is ready and willing to help right the wrongs of history. I’d like to thank Bill Sweeney for the excellent relationship that the USDNY enjoys with the FBI’s NY Field Office.
It is an especially fitting honor to have the legendary former US Attorney and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau on the podium today, given his family’s profoundly deep connections to the fight against Nazism. In 1943, while Mr. Morgenthau was fighting overseas, his father, US Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., approved a plan to rescue European Jews.
Tragically, his efforts were obstructed by the State Department and British Foreign Office.
Yet Henry Morgenthau and his staff persisted. In January 1944, they bypassed the State Department and confronted President Roosevelt, who then ordered the creation of the War Refugee Board, which saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of European Jews.
While it is impossible to list all of Robert Morgenthau’s accomplishments from his lifetime of public service, I will note something of particular relevance to today’s ceremony: In 1998, Mr. Morgenthau’s DA’s Office seized several paintings looted by the Nazis. That seizure prompted a major international conference on Nazi-confiscated art, which in turn led to far greater cooperation and record sharing among nations.
Every day as I enter my office I pass a portrait of Mr. Morgenthau and every day I am inspired. We owe him and his family a debt of gratitude for their service to this country.
I would like to thank Michael Glickman and his staff at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for hosting us in this beautiful space. The Museum, dedicated to educating visitors about Jewish life before, after, and during the Holocaust, is perfectly suited to today’s event.
I would also like to thank my former law partner Judah Gribetz for helping to arrange this ceremony. And thank him for writing The Timetables of Jewish History, a book to which I often refer.
I want to acknowledge the excellent work of Assistant United States Attorney Noah Falk, a career prosecutor in my office who worked diligently to secure the return of this painting as well as the wonderful supervision of this case by Andrew Adams and Alexander Wilson, the Chiefs of our Money Laundering & Asset Forfeiture Unit.
This is a joyous event, bringing some measure of justice to Madame Sulitzer and her family. Yet, the joy of this ceremony is tempered by the events giving rise to it. So today, while we celebrate the just return of this painting, we also remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust and reaffirm our commitment to ensure the words “never forget, never again” never ring hollow.