(New York, March 14, 2000) — Last Friday, in a news story reported by the Associated Press and subsequently printed in the New York Times (March 12), the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, Elan Steinberg, suggested — apparently relying on a brief provenance listing in an 18-year-old-catalogue published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art — that a painting in the Museum's collection "may have been stolen from Jews" during the Nazi-World War II era: Portrait of a Man, a 1597 work by Peter Paul Rubens.
In fact, research has shown that this allegation is completely unfounded. According to a 76-year-old article in the authoritative German art journal Jahrbuch der Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen, the Rubens portrait resided in the collection of a "Mr. H[enry]. Blank, Newark, N.J." by 1924, at least nine years before the Nazis came to power in Germany. Previously published records indicate that the picture remained in the Blank collection until 1949. As Mr. Steinberg pointed out, the work had once been handled by Karl Haberstock, an art dealer who later dealt in plundered art. However, Haberstock was also active as a dealer long before the Nazi era, when he sold the Rubens painting.
In making his remarks, Mr. Steinberg also stated: "The issue is whether American museums will fulfill the pledge they made two years ago" to check their collections for gaps in provenance between 1933 and 1945. The Metropolitan Museum will indeed fulfill that pledge. The Metropolitan — whose Director, Philippe de Montebello, chaired the American Art Museum Directors' Task Force that first called for such research — has been engaged in carefully reviewing its extensive holdings of works acquired since 1933, and will be making a preliminary report this spring.