NEW YORK – The granddaughter of a Jewish art collector whose paintings were stolen by the Nazis had a family reunion with one of the works on Wednesday after almost eight decades, an impressionist piece by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Sylvie Sulitzer saw “Two Women in a Garden” for the first time at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage after unveiling it at a ceremony that included law enforcement officials representing the offices that helped get the painting back to her, her grandparents’ only living descendant.
“I’m very thankful to be able to show my beloved family, wherever they are, that after what they’ve been through, there is justice,” Sulitzer said tearfully.
The reunion, though, will probably be short-lived. She will likely auction off the painting to pay back compensation she previously got for missing artwork.
She was joined by Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, and William Sweeney Jr., the assistant director in charge of the New York office of the FBI.
Sulitzer’s grandfather, Alfred Weinberger, was an art collector in Paris. Sulitzer said he fled the city to avoid being pressed into service by the Nazis for his art expertise.
He put some of his paintings in a bank vault before fleeing the Nazis, who took possession of the works in December 1941. The Nazis made a regular practice of looting artworks and other items of cultural and financial significance, and in the decades since World War II, efforts have been made to find the objects and return them to their owners if possible, with varying levels of success.
Weinberger died when Sulitzer, now 59, was a teenager, without ever getting the Renoir and a handful of other paintings returned to him. She had no idea of the paintings’ existence, Sulitzer said, since they weren’t discussed in her family.
“The war was a taboo subject; we never talked about that,” said Sulitzer, who owns a delicatessen in the south of France near where she lives in Roquevaire.
But Weinberger had registered his missing property with authorities, and it was included in a database that had gone online in 2010 of looted art, based on records compiled by the Nazis themselves of what they had amassed.
Sulitzer learned in 2013 that the painting, which had surfaced periodically through the decades at various auctions, was once again up for auction. Her attorneys contacted the auction house, which in turn went to the FBI division that looks into situations of this sort.
The painting had been all over the world in the years since the Nazis took hold of it, including Johannesburg, London and Zurich, said Sweeney.
“The extraordinary journey this small work of art has made around the globe and through time ends today,” he said.
The owner of the piece voluntarily gave it up to be returned to Sulitzer, officials said.
The painting is on display at the museum through Sunday and will go back to Sulitzer’s possession after that. She wasn’t sure for how long, though – she has to pay back some money from the French and German governments she got in connection with the stolen works, since one of them has been returned, and she said she can’t afford to and will likely auction off the painting.
Despite that, she said, she was thrilled to have it back, saying it was important for the memory of her family, and she thought her grandfather would consider it justice.
“I would have loved him to be here, instead of me,” Sulitzer said.
She wished other families looking for their own lost works to be as lucky as she has been.
“I hope everybody will, one day or another, have the justice as I had,” she said.
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