By Nikki Salvo
“Starry Night,” “Irises,” and “Café Terrace at Night.” Many know these famous Vincent van Gogh paintings, but “Vase with Oleanders” is a lesser-known, smaller work created by the Dutch post-impressionist artist. The piece is at the center of a real-life conundrum brought to attention by San Diego author Lynne Kennedy in her new book “Deadly Provenance.” In it, Kennedy provides a fictional resolution to an “almost impossible mystery.”
Painted in 1888 by Van Gogh in Arles, Provence, and missing since 1944, the piece was believed to have been looted by the Nazis during World War II, stolen from a French-Jewish family, the Bernheim-Jeune clan, who owned a gallery in Paris and had the work on display there. In 1941, the Bernheim-Jeune family had reason to believe they would be targeted by Nazis, and moved all of their art to the Chateau de Rastignac, located near Bordeaux, for safekeeping. Indeed, three years later, Nazi thieves raided the chateau before burning it to the ground. Yet the question remains, what happened to “Vase with Oleanders”? Was it destroyed in the fire, or is it still in existence? Kennedy, mystery author and former education and exhibits director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, hopes her book will help re-ignite the search for the still unaccounted for painting.
“I write mysteries that are centered around historical events and are solved today by modern technology,” Kennedy says.
In her novel, her main character, a digital photographer, is asked to authenticate a painting from a photograph in connection with a friend’s murder, applying methods for authenticating art that are currently being developed in today’s art world. The character is led to the missing 1888 Van Gogh piece, and does find a fictional resolution to this perplexing case, although the real-life mystery has yet to be solved.
Her work at the Fleet is what got Kennedy interested in the modern part of her story. She has a fascination with science, history, research and fiction, and these worlds collided perfectly with her idea for the story.
“In my research, I started looking around for paintings that were still missing from World War II, from the Nazi confiscation of art, and there are many that are still missing,” she says. “I had a particular interest in Van Gogh, so I was kind of looking around for a Van Gogh painting that might be missing, and, in fact, I found one.”
She spoke to experts about how her character would go about finding the painting, which sparked an interest in hunting for the painting herself.
Kennedy points to “The Lost Museum,” a book by Hector Feliciano, in which she first spotted the Van Gogh painting, and “The Rape of Europa,” a book and documentary film by Lynn Nicholas, in which she discovered the work had belonged to the Bernheim-Jeune family, as go-to sources on the subject. Witnesses say they saw myriad art pieces taken from the chateau and loaded onto Nazi trucks. In speaking with Nicholas, Kennedy found out it was inconclusive whether this particular piece wound up on the truck and was shipped somewhere outside of France; whether a peasant came along, found some of the treasures and picked it up; or if it perished. The mystery “fired [her] imagination” and she decided to try and find it.
Kennedy has publicized her “adventure” and interest in the case on social media, and has reached out to contacts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Van Gogh Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. She has acquired leads from the Holocaust Art Restitution Project in Washington, D.C., on which she is currently following up. According to her website, she will also be “tracing records from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazi agency tasked with the confiscation of art from ‘undesirables.’” She even strikes up conversations with ordinary people she meets, and enlists them in her search. One man offered to check with his aunt in Pennsylvania to see if the painting was in her attic, and a French waitress she met at a restaurant near San Diego said she would mention the story to her family, who lives in the area where the Chateau de Rastignac is located, for any possible connections to the piece.
Kennedy says that there is “constantly something in the newspaper these days” about lost or stolen art or art that has been restored to Holocaust victims. On the subject of these millions of pieces looted by the Nazis, Kennedy states: “Many works have been found, but many are still missing.”
A San Diego family also suffered a decades-
old struggle to recover a piece of art stolen from them by the Nazis in World War II, a painting by French-Impressionist Camille Pissarro. In 1939, right before World War II began, Lilly Cassirer’s Jewish family was forced to flee Germany and give up the Pissarro painting to a Nazi appraiser in order to survive. Cassirer was able to escape, but members of her family stayed behind, and her sister perished in a concentration camp. After the war, she attempted to find the painting, to no avail, and the family ended up accepting approximately $13,000 in restitution from the German government, although this by no means implied they gave up rights to ownership. Cassirer died in 1962, and many years later, in 2000, San Diego resident Claude Cassirer, her sole heir, discovered that the painting was still in existence.
The first time Claude saw the painting, he was a boy in Germany. It hung in his grandmother Lilly’s parlor. As an adult, Claude, a portrait photographer in Cleveland, spoke to one of his clients about the painting, and she mentioned she saw it in a book.
“Rue St.-Honore, Aprés-Midi, Effet de Pliue,” painted in 1897, is currently displayed in Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and Claude sued to recapture it in 2005. The court dismissed the lawsuit by striking down a new state law allowing the recovery of lost art, and a federal appeals court has now reversed the decision, resulting in the approval of a civil trial. Claude has since passed away, but before his death he appointed the Jewish Federation of San Diego County as an heir, hoping to keep the piece rightfully within the family and the hands of the Jewish public. His widow, Beverly, 93, resides in La Jolla. She is still in possession of a photograph of the piece hanging in Lilly’s parlor, as well as some of the objects depicted in that photo, proving the painting did indeed belong to the Cassirer family, according to attorney Stuart Dunwoody.
Dunwoody, attorney for the Federation, a co-plaintiff, along with David and Ava Cassirer, Claude’s children, says they still haven’t won their case. He says that “this is just one step along the way,” but the recent legal victory is “gratifying,” and they are happy to be back in trial court and have the opportunity to prove their claim. He estimates it may take up to a year before the case goes to trial.
Now, more than ever, the subject of lost art confiscated by the Nazis is especially relevant. More cases are coming to light, and even Hollywood is getting in on the action. George Clooney’s latest film, “The Monuments Men,” in which he stars and directs, reviewed by critic Owen Gleiberman in a February issue of Entertainment Weekly, “… tells the unlikely story of a team of museum curators and art historians who were sent behind enemy lines during World War II to recover hundreds of pieces of art that had been pilfered by Nazi thieves.”
“Art is the message of the culture,” Kris Etter, graduate of San Diego State University’s Art, Art History and Design program, asserts, “and after Adolf Hitler, a former painter, attempted to overtake Europe and failed, he ordered the Nazis to destroy so much of this art in an attempt to leave no proof connecting them to the plundering and stealing.”
“The Jews were smart,” Etter says. “They bought art and gold, because they knew it would be valuable in the long run.”
Sadly, most of these valuables were destroyed during the tyrant’s reign.
As for Kennedy’s next step? Meeting with a woman affiliated with the White Rose Society, an organization of young people in the 1940s who fought against Hitler, distributing leaflets about how his propaganda was filled with lies. All the members ended up being murdered, Kennedy says, but the Society still exists to commemorate these people’s work.
“It all has to do with equality, justice and, simply, fairness,” she says.
Although the whereabouts of the Van Gogh painting have so far proven to be elusive, when asked where she believes it resides today, Kennedy says she tends to agree with Nicholas in the theory that “Vase with Oleanders” likely wound up in the hands of an art collector, and may someday turn up at an auction or estate sale. If it is found, Kennedy points out that because many Jewish people were forced to sell their paintings to the Nazis, oftentimes for a mere dollar to save their families, the circumstances behind the sale of the piece will be “tricky” to sort out; who is the rightful owner?
Kennedy may not get to the bottom of this perplexing mystery like her character in “Deadly Provenance” did, but she sure is having fun trying.
“Keep your eyes open for that painting at your next garage sale!” she says.
“Deadly Provenance” is available for purchase where books are sold. To learn more, visit lynnekennedymysteries.com. For more information about Federation’s efforts to uncover art stolen during World War II, visit jewishinsandiego.org.