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Sotheby’s Pulls Painting from Block

November 26, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Sotheby’s has removed a 17th-century Dutch painting from the auction block because of suspicion it may have been stolen by the Nazis, the auction house said Tuesday.

``We received information last week that caused us to question whether we should continue to offer this painting,″ said Diana Phillips, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Sotheby’s New York headquarters.

The auction house, which has acknowledged Nazis may have stolen the work, took the action after The Boston Globe inquired into the record of ownership.

Last week, the newspaper gathered evidence that the painting, ``A Dune Landscape with Two Figures by a Fence,″ may be among the thousands of artworks unaccounted for since World War II.

Sotheby’s had included the painting in the catalog for its Dec. 3 and 4 London auction.

The auction house called its client, a German national, and said ``troubling questions″ had been raised about its ownership, Phillips said.

``We said that we felt these questions should really be answered,″ she said. ``The client agreed.″

Painted by Jacob van Ruisdael in 1647, the artwork apparently was destined for a museum Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria, The Globe has reported.

The museum was to have showcased art plundered from European Jews or bought in occupied countries. It was never built.

The van Ruisdael work surfaced on the market as the National Jewish Museum and the World Jewish Congress began efforts to compile databases of missing wartime paintings, many of them looted from Jews.

Museums, collectors, and auction houses know far less about wartime looting than the growing number of historians who specialize in it. Sotheby’s officials, for example, said they didn’t know the U.S. National Archives contains inventories of paintings stolen during wartime.

The painting is one of 48 Old Masters from the estate of German industrialist Guenter Henle. Henle, who died in 1979, was imprisoned by the Allies for 10 months after the war for his role in running critical wartime coal and steel industries in the Ruhr Valley.

Records cited by the Globe show that Edouard Plietzsch, a friend and art adviser to Henle, was the wartime deputy director of the Dienststelle Muehlmann, the Nazi art looting unit in the Netherlands. The newspaper said that Pieter de Boer, the Dutch dealer who sold the painting to Henle, also sold hundreds of paintings to the Nazis during the war.

Henle’s family agreed with the decision to remove the van Ruisdael from the sale, Phillips said.

Ori Z. Soltes, the director of the National Jewish Museum and the chairman of its Holocaust Art Restitution Project, praised Sotheby’s.

The auction house ``has set a new standard for behavior, rather than succumbing to greed,″ he said.

Yet Soltes and others who have reviewed the incomplete information in Sotheby’s catalog say even that should have triggered a fuller investigation by Sotheby’s before it accepted the painting for auction.

In the past, Sotheby’s has been stung by charges that it has sold stolen artworks without scrutinizing their ownership history.

George Gordon, a Sotheby’s senior director, acknowledged the auction house was unaware of archival records of wartime looting.

But, he said, the firm ``has been on a rapid upward slope for some time″ in the amount of detailed research it now does before offering art for auction.

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