Genealogical Detective Work Solves Looted Art Mystery

Genealogical Detective Work Solves Looted Art Mystery

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This is a story of genealogy at its best; a tale of reconnecting families with heirlooms that they didn’t know belonged to them or even that those items existed.

Laurie Greene, 73, from the United States, could not believe what she heard when she recently received a phone call from MyHeritage. During that memorable call, she was surprised with the news that as a living descendant and rightful heir of the famous Dutch-Jewish painter Mommie Schwarz, she is eligible to claim 133 illustrations that were stolen from her great-uncle.

The back story

MyHeritage, as a company, has a history of returning looted assets confiscated during WWII to their rightful owners. One of our driving forces as a company is to do good, and we place particular emphasis on conducting pro bono projects worldwide.

In 2014, CEO and founder of MyHeritage, Gilad Japhet, was approached by New York Times journalist Doreen Carvajal with an interesting request. She had set out on a journey to return looted artwork stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. More than 2,000 unclaimed works of art, worth billions of euros today, are currently on display in 57 museums throughout France. The museums had not been able to locate heirs and rightful owners of the works. Doreen set out to change this and enlisted Gilad to assist. He began to research the heirs of four paintings from the looted art. They began with famous paintings that had records of provenance, showing who the owners were before WWII. Using MyHeritage and other online databases, he was able to trace the descendants and to uncover the hidden stories.

What began as an exciting challenge evolved into an unexpected adventure for Gilad, who discovered tales of intrigue, plotting, and – unfortunately – tragedy, all laced through family history over several generations. He was able to discover heirs for all four paintings he researched, and the rightful owners have since filed claims with the French authorities. He has helped to return precious and extremely valuable heirlooms to those families and has uncovered and returned a lost and important part of their family history. The story by Doreen Carvajal was featured on the front cover of the New York Times art section.

The Dutch Museum Association

In October 2018, The Dutch Museum Association published its findings on an internal audit by Dutch museums to determine which artworks in their collections were presumably stolen from their Jewish original owners by Nazis during WWII. A total of 170 pieces of art were discovered in the audit, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other objects.

The works of art in question included pieces by well-known Flemish artist Eugène Joseph Verboeckhoven and the Dutch-Jewish painter Mommie Schwarz. The pieces are held by 42 Dutch museums including the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, and Museum Kranenburg in Bergen.

Search for descendants

Intrigued by a new lead, MyHeritage set out on a pro bono initiative to search for living descendants who are rightful heirs of the original owners of the stolen artwork. Due to our previous achievements in reuniting families with lost artworks, we were positive we would have similar success with the Dutch artworks.

After seeing the list of 170 works that were determined to have been stolen, Gilad stayed up the whole night researching each one. He could not rest until he had mapped the artworks that had the potential for locating the living heirs who had a claim to them. He then traced the descendants of Samuel (Mommie) Schwarz and handed the project over to the MyHeritage research team to take it from there.

The MyHeritage research team began by examining those artworks with inscriptions, where the original owner’s name was known. Using MyHeritage SuperSearch, which contains millions of family trees and billions of historical records from around the world, they were able to find descendants of the original owners through the principle of reverse engineering. The team contacted the descendants, informed them about the traced art, and that they were the living descendants. Some descendants had no clue that they were related to that particular ancestor, or that they were the only living descendant. The descendants could then choose to file a claim to obtain the confiscated artwork for the family.

Justice at last

This process led the MyHeritage team to call a few descendants worldwide, including Laurie Greene. The Dutch-Jewish painter Samuel (Mommie) Schwarz was her great-uncle, the brother of her grandfather.

Laurie had submitted testimony at Yad Vashem for relatives who perished in the Holocaust, including her great-uncle, for whom she submitted testimony in 1995. There she listed Samuel as a famous artist in Holland.

Mommie Schwarz was born in Zutphen, the Netherlands on July 28, 1876, and married fellow artist Else Berg in 1920. The couple lived in Amsterdam and traveled often. Their work is recognized as the Bergen School. Mommie specifically created many port views, landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

The Municipality of Bergen owns the drawing “Dubrovnik,” and an additional 132 other sketches and drawings by Mommie. These works were acquired by the Municipality in 1969, although it is not clear from whom they were purchased and how Schwarz lost possession of them.

Following the outbreak of the war, Mommie and his wife went into hiding in Baambrugge but decided to return to their house on the Sarphatipark in Amsterdam. There, they were rounded up on November 12, 1942, and transported via Westerbork directly to Auschwitz and were immediately executed upon arrival. Mommie did deposit some works during the war, but these 133 sketches were not among them. It is therefore not clear how these sketches left his possession.

As rightful heir, Laurie is now eligible to claim all 133 illustrations that were stolen from her great-uncle.

Laurie was very emotional as she received the news:

I am going to do my utmost to claim this artwork back. I think it’s great that MyHeritage has proactively and voluntarily helped to make this possible. Bringing this art back into our family means justice after so many years.

There are many more stories to be uncovered, but the message is clear: The information is out there, and it’s up to us to uncover the past and unravel the stories of our ancestors!

*In the blog post image above, the image on the left is a portrait of Mommie Schwarz by his wife Else Berg, and on the right, a self-portrait by Mommie Schwartz.

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  • sharon


    February 15, 2019

    Your company is amazing to be doing all this pro bono work. It’s refreshing to see a large company doing so much good voluntarily.

  • Gail Thompson


    February 16, 2019

    I am proud to support this company! Keep up the good work!

  • gail fabin


    February 16, 2019

    what a wonderful group of projects for you to offer pro bono. certainly WWII left so many families fractured with their possessions stolen. also, to offer adoptees and their families to locate birth families.
    continue the great work.

  • Lorna Lefler


    February 16, 2019

    Wow, thank you for your work in connecting these pieces of work to their rightful heirs and other projects!

    You and your company are amazing!!

  • Bob Wyatt


    February 17, 2019

    I have recently written a book, “Ndekendek” about the life of Josse Flasschoen (published by Xlibris). His father was Gustav Flasschoen, the great Belgium artist. The information for the story was given to me by George Flasschoen, Gustav’s grandson. George reported seeing online a painting that hung in his bedroom in Brussels. It sold quickly.. George does not have any of his grandfather’s paintings. He escaped with his mother over the Pyrenees Mountains in 1942 after his father was beheaded in Cologne, Germany, as a prisoner of Hitler’s. George was separated from his mother and never was able to see his parents again. They left behind in their house some twenty paintings of Gustav’s. George donated to the Leeton Museum the scrapbooks that his grandfather had put together of his art shows and newspaper articles. We would very much like to have a few paintings of Gustav’s. George died this past year, but he has five children who I correspond with. Is there any possibility that some of his paintings could be returned to the family? Thanks. Bob Wyatt, Leeton Museum, 400 North Main, Leeton, Missouri 64761 USA.

  • Gerald (Ged) Yates


    February 17, 2019

    Great work extremely worthwhile.

  • Janet Sue love


    February 17, 2019

    I have recently been contacted by a cousin who is an adoptee. It is the blind leading the blind trying to help her in locating parents, grand parents and/or siblings. We both recently took dna test and were willing to share our results. The site stated I have just under 1,100 cousins in their system and she and I share just over a hundred cousins. Wish I understood better how to narrow down our relationship to each other so she could find closer relatives than myself.

  • Rachael Richardson


    February 20, 2019

    Is there any way to know if WE are on the List?

    • Esther


      March 6, 2019

      Hi Rachael,

      Here’s a link to the Dutch Museum Association that had originally announced the list of 171 pieces of art: https://www.musealeverwervingen.nl/en/10/home/

      Hope it helps!

      Best, Esther / MyHeritage Team

  • Marina L Shah


    February 25, 2019

    Hi there,
    I am a member of Myheritage.com
    I really need help finding my father. I just turn 50 and I’m afraid that my daughter will grow up without knowing her grandfather. I am desperately needed to know him knowing whether he is alive or not.
    Thank you,
    Marina

  • Cindy mayer


    August 8, 2019

    How do I get a DNA test?