March 21, 2014
In March, 2014, a museum in Norway co-founded by the Olympic skating champion Sonja Henie has agreed to return one of its signature works, a portrait by Matisse, to the New York family of a prewar Paris art dealer after determining the painting was stolen by the Nazis. The return was the first for a Norwegian museum and one of the most significant Scandinavian restitution cases to date.
The museum, the Henie Onstad Arts Center, was founded in 1968 by Henie and her husband, Niels Onstad, a shipping magnate. Onstad bought the 1937 work, “Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace,” in 1950, the museum said, in the belief that the sale was legitimate.
But records uncovered by the descendants of the art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, showed that the Matisse was one of 162 works seized from him in September 1941 and that it was briefly in the possession of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s Luftwaffe chief. A lawyer for the Rosenberg family, Christopher A. Marinello of the London-based Art Recovery International, contacted the museum two years earlier to demand its return.
In a statement, Halvor Stenstadvold, the chairman of the museum’s board, said an “extensive investigation of the case has led to the decision that the return is justified.” He said the decision “will most likely impact other Norwegian institutions” if similar challenges arise.
Mr. Marinello praised the museum for taking a “methodical approach.” In agreeing to the return, the museum lost a major piece of its core collection. The museum holds 4,000 items, including 600 trophies and prizes awarded to Henie for her skating prowess.
Henie, who died in 1969, won gold medals in Olympics figure skating in 1928, 1932 and 1936, then became a Hollywood film star. She also faced criticism in Norway in the late 1930s for having befriended Hitler.