At Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Nazi-Looted Renoir Meets Rightful Owner

Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin is unveiled by Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, and Sylvie Sulitzer, whose grandfather had owned the painting before World War II. Sulitzer was seeing the painting for the first time. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Sep. 13, 2018

In an emotional ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Wednesday, federal authorities returned a Renoir painting, looted by the Nazis in 1941, to its rightful owner.

“I’m very thankful to be able to show my beloved family, wherever they are, that after all what they’ve have been through there is justice,” said Sylvie Sulitzer, 59, the granddaughter and only heir of a prominent Jewish art collector who fled Paris to escape the Gestapo at the start of the war.

Sulitzer saw the painting, Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin, for the first time when she unveiled it along with Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, whose office worked with the FBI to verify the painting’s ownership and secure its voluntary return. The museum will display the painting through Sunday, Sept. 16. Admission is free during that time.

Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin is one of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s last works, painted in 1919, the year he died. Sulitzer’s grandfather, Alfred Weinberger, acquired the painting in 1925. He stored his Renoirs and other valuable paintings in the Morgan Bank before the family fled Nazi-held Paris for a town in the French Alps. Those paintings, seized in 1941, were among the massive number of works stolen and meticulously documented by the Nazis during the war. Following the war, the painting traveled the world, to art sales in Johannesburg, London and Zurich. Sulitzer became aware of it in 2013, 36 years after her grandfather’s death, when it was to be auctioned at Christie’s Gallery in New York City. An investigation by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office led to proof that the painting belonged to her.

Sulitzer, who went to live with her grandparents at age five after her mother and father divorced, said the subject of the family’s looted paintings never came  up. “As far as I can remember nobody ever spoke about the war,” she said. “It was taboo.” But seeing the painting, she said, “brought me back to when I was a young girl living with my grandfather and grandmother, my mother and her brother.

Berman, the U.S. Attorney, would not speculate on the painting’s value. “Suffice it to say that Madame Sulitzer believes it is priceless,” he said.

Asked how she felt as the painting was being unveiled, Sulitzer, who lives in the south of France and owns a delicatessen, said it was a “huge emotion, but not especially for the painting.”

“It’s more the symbol of the justice,” she said, “and the huge work that everybody did to make this day possible.”