The Museum of Fine Arts has agreed to return a 17th century Dutch painting to the heirs of a Jewish collector, resolving longstanding concerns over the artwork’s spotty ownership history.
The agreement restores ownership of the looted painting to the heirs of Ferenc Chorin, a Hungarian industrialist who placed the artwork in a bank vault before fleeing Hungary during World War II.
Chorin’s heirs intend to auction the painting this April in New York at Christie’s Old Masters sale, where it is expected to fetch between $500,000 and $700,000. The painting, titled “View of Beverwijk” (1646) by Salomon van Ruysdael, depicts a rural scene on the outskirts of Beverwijk, north of Haarlem in the Netherlands. It went on public view over the weekend.
“I am so pleased that we were able to quickly come to a resolution, leading to the return of the painting to its rightful owners,” said MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum. “As a museum, we will continue to do our part to determine the rightful ownership of objects we hold in trust.”
The agreement, which comes amid mounting pressure on museums to return stolen objects, is one of numerous claims the MFA has resolved in recent years. In 2017, the museum paid to retain a group of porcelain figurines sold amid Nazi persecution in 1937, and in 2014 it repatriated a group of looted Nigerian artifacts.
Agnes Peresztegi, attorney for the Chorin family, praised the MFA’s handling of the claim, saying it has been less than a year since she approached the museum with a formal request.
“This was a model restitution process,” Peresztegi, of Soffer Avocats, said by video chat from Paris. “The quickest I’ve ever seen in my life.”
That’s in part because Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance, had long suspected the painting’s poorly documented ownership history — it was listed only as having come from a private Swiss collection — masked a more nefarious origin.
Equally troubling: The painting, which the museum acquired from a London dealer in 1982, had a fragment of an old Hungarian label on its reverse panel — an indication it had spent time in Hungary, where Jewish people lost enormous wealth to the Nazis and later to the Communist state.
“Just the fact that it came from Hungary raised a red flag,” said Reed, who added that resolving the painting’s murky ownership history, or provenance, has been one of her “high priorities” since she arrived at the museum.
Even so, Reed didn’t have much to work with. One of her critical reference works, a 1988 book detailing Hungarian war losses, had the wrong image and description under the entry for the Chorin’s stolen Ruysdael, making it almost impossible for her to link the MFA painting with Chorin’s collection.
She photographed the back of the painting, contacted the dealer, and ran it against a stolen art database — all to no avail.
Reed couldn’t have known it at the time, but Chorin’s family had begun searching for the Ruysdael painting — one small piece of their lives that vanished during the war.
An attorney, banker, and industrialist, Chorin was a prominent figure in Hungary’s political and economic life between the world wars, heading an influential steel factory and serving as president of the National Association of Industrialists.
He also became an avowed anti-Nazi, who funded opposition movements and helped Jews who fled Nazi-controlled territories, according to a history compiled by Peresztegi. But while Chorin’s status and wealth protected him more than most, his position became increasingly tenuous as Hungary enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws starting in the late 1930s.
In March 1943, he deposited the Ruysdael painting — along with works by Alfred Sisley, Jean-François Millet, and Charles-François Daubigny — in a vault at the Hungarian Commercial Bank of Pest for safekeeping.
One year later, Chorin and his family went into hiding as the Germans invaded Hungary.
“[W]e had to flee our home within minutes,” Chorin’s daughter, Daisy von Strasser, recalled via e-mail. “Realizing I’d forgotten my new camera at home, I tried telephoning one of our household staff with the hope they could bring it to me, but [Nazi officers] answered, and I realized our lives had changed forever.”
Ultimately, Chorin was forced to transfer his fortune, including control of the factory, to the Nazis in exchange for his extended family’s freedom, according to the history. They fled to Portugal, eventually settling in New York in 1947.
“Our first lunch in the new world was at a Horn & Hardart cafeteria where you would put 25 cents into the automat and out came a piece of cake,” recalled von Strasser. “When my mother saw this, she broke down in tears.”
By then, the Ruysdael painting had vanished — looted along with the rest of the vault’s contents during the lengthy Siege of Budapest or its immediate aftermath.
Von Strasser said her father, who died in 1964, had not sought the paintings after settling in the United States.
“Instead of trying to retrieve family belongings that were lost, first to the Nazis and then to the Communists, he concentrated on helping Hungarian refugees,” she said. “With Hungary still led by Communists, we did not take any action to reclaim anything as we assumed everything was lost or destroyed.”
She added that the family has sought to retrieve some of its property in more recent decades, recovering one canvas by Sisley and another by the Hungarian master Mihály Munkácsy.
Still, there was no trace of the Ruysdael painting.
Or so it seemed until 2019, when the MFA’s Reed received information from scholar Sándor Juhász that the painting had once belonged to Frigyes Glück, a Hungarian hotelier who died in 1931.
“At that point, I simply updated the record online,” said Reed. “We still did not have any indication that it had been looted or stolen, but we at least had a new name that we could put into the provenance.”
The updated online entry proved to be critical for attorney Peresztegi, who knew Chorin had likely purchased the painting from Glück’s estate and had been scouring records on behalf of the family.
From there, it was just a Google search away.
“I just did an Internet search,” said Peresztegi, who was able match the partial Hungarian label on the back of the painting with documents from a 1919 exhibition and an archival photo of the painting. “There is no way that [Reed] could have found this out based on what was on the back. It’s just not possible.”
Reed, who quickly recognized the strength of the case, said MFA’s collecting standards are more stringent today than when the museum acquired the painting nearly four decades ago.
“I don’t think we would accept a painting like this [today], particularly with an indication that it had come from Hungary, without further provenance information,” she said. “The amount of due diligence that we would do on a new acquisition has changed pretty drastically.”
Von Strasser said her father, who never returned to Hungary, would have been “elated to learn that some form of his former life had been found.”
“I do not think he would have made a lot of noise about it,” she continued. “He would have looked at this painting and would have thought that regardless of what they may have lost in Hungary, they were the luckiest people in the world because they were all alive!”