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Provenance Case Study: Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea

Case Study

Courbet’s Nude Reclining by the Sea (1963-181-20) has long been published as belonging during World War II to Paul Rosenberg, an art dealer with offices in Paris and New York. In April 1953, Rosenberg sold the painting to the New York collector Louis E. Stern (1886–1962). Overlooked within this history is the fact that the painting was stolen from Rosenberg by the Nazis in 1941, and spent part of the war in the private art collection of Hitler’s second-in-command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

The World War II history of the painting was uncovered in 1964 when curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art prepared a catalogue of the recently acquired Louis E. Stern collection. Henry G. Gardiner, then the curator of European painting, was interested in the provenance of works in the collection and wrote to European and American dealers asking for information on Stern’s purchases. On behalf of Paul Rosenberg and Co., Alexandre Rosenberg replied to Gardiner in June 1964 that the Courbet was acquired by his father’s firm from another dealer in 1933 or 1934 and had been seized during the war by the Nazis. In the late 1940s, the Allies returned the painting to Paul Rosenberg, who was then living in New York City.(1)

Provenance research at the Philadelphia Museum of Art further documented the wartime history of the painting. An examination of the back of the painting has confirmed that it was confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a Nazi task force responsible for the seizure of artworks owned by Jews and Freemasons. In 1939, Rosenberg hid part of his collection in a bank vault near Bordeaux, France, for safe-keeping. On September 5, 1941, the Nazis discovered Rosenberg’s bank vault and removed 162 paintings.(2) The paintings were subsequently sent to the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris and catalogued by the ERR, who painted “ROSENBERG BORDEAUX” in black capitals onto the stretcher and canvas of the Courbet, identifying the work as one taken from Rosenberg’s collection in Bordeaux. In Paris, the Courbet painting caught the eye of Hermann Göring, a voracious art collector who used his authority to select seized works for his own collection and for exchange. The ERR catalogue card, numbered “PR 137” for Paul Rosenberg, forms the official Nazi record of the Rosenberg seizure.(3) In the lower right corner of the ERR card, now at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, the heading “Verbleib,” or “Whereabouts” is marked with the initials “HG,” for Hermann Göring.(4) Traces of this cataloguing are still visible in the form of a typed label in German that is glued to the painting’s upper stretcher. The label lists the artist, title, the owner from which it was taken, and the date “2 December 1941,” when this group of objects selected by Göring at the Jeu de Paume was shipped from Paris to Berlin.

Towards the end of the war, to protect both the looted art and art belonging to German national collections from Allied bombs, the Nazis hastily gathered it in huge repositories, including remote castles and a network of salt mines in Germany and Austria. At the end of the war the Allied forces and especially the division known as the “Monuments Men” made efforts to recover and catalogue the looted art that had been secreted away. The Monuments Men was the nickname of a group of approximately 345 mostly civilian men and women, many of them arts professionals such as art historians and museum curators, who were charged with protecting European art and monuments in harm’s way, and after the war, with restituting Nazi-plundered art to its rightful owners.(5)

As the Allied forces closed in on Berlin, Göring attempted to evacuate his collection via private train to the town of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, a Nazi country retreat where he, Hitler, and other high-ranking Nazi officials owned villas. Ironically, the Göring train cars proved too tempting for the townspeople of Berchtesgaden, who looted them looking for valuables. Fortunately in May 1945 the Monuments Men intervened, recovering the Courbet along with hundreds of other objects from Göring’s collection.

To house and process the recovered cultural objects, the U.S. military set up four central collecting points in the U.S. zone of Germany, the most famous of which, the Munich Central Collecting Point, specialized in objects looted from private collections that were to be restituted outside of Germany. The Courbet arrived at the Munich Central Collecting Point on August 1, 1945, where it was catalogued and assigned Munich no. 6125/Berchtesgaden 1077, meaning that it was the 1077th object from shipment no. 6125.(6) Estimates of the total number of objects that passed through the Munich collecting point alone range from 150,000 to over 1 million. The restitution effort was equally massive: the Monuments Men returned 3.45 million items of cultural property to their countries of origin.(7) Estimates are that of the total number of looted artworks, about 85% were eventually returned to the original owners or their heirs.

The Munich cataloguing card records that the painting was seized for Göring’s collection from its presumed owner, Paul Rosenberg. It notes the marks on the reverse, including the Göring collection number, G-82, placed when it was inventoried by the Allies in Berchtesgaden. The card also records that it was repatriated to France on April 18, 1946. From France it was restituted to the Rosenberg firm in New York, who subsequently sold it to our donor, Louis E. Stern, in 1953.


  1. The following is a transcription of Alexandre Rosenberg’s letter to Henry G. Gardiner, June 9, 1964, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives, Marceau Object Files; Stern, Louis E. (Collection); Research for Catalogue.

    “Dear Mr. Gardiner:
    I have your letter of June 4th, concerning the Courbet “Reclining Nude” in the Louis E. Stern Collection. . . As it is our custom, we always include all the information at our disposal pertaining to the item sold. In the present case, the details are spotty due to the fact that our pre-war records have been lost. The picture belongs to the numerous group of works of art looted during the war by the Germans, and restituted to us in the late forties.

    The Courbet was acquired from Bernheim-Jeune, Paris about 1933-34. Previously, it had been exhibited in “Exposition d’Art Français”, in 1917, at Paul Rosenberg, Paris, and in the Courbet exhibition held at the Petit Palais, Paris in 1929.

    I regret that there stops the knowledge of the history of the painting.
    Hoping however that even so little data might be a help.

    Sincerely yours,
    Alexandre Rosenberg" 
  2. A fuller account of the Nazi seizure of Rosenberg’s property in Bordeaux may be found in Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum, New York, 1997, pp. 52–74.
  3. National Archives, RG260, OMGUS Property Division, Misc. Records, ERR Card File, 1940–45, Box 19.
  4. Nancy H. Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha and Amy L. Walsh, The AAM Guide to Provenance Research, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 58; and Nancy H. Yeide, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection, Dallas, 2009, pp. 13–14, and no. A1153, p. 377.
  5. See Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, New York, 1994; and Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, New York, 2009.
  6. National Archives, Munich Central Collecting Point Property Card no. 6125.
  7. MFA&A Final Report, cited by Michael Kurtz, “The End of War and the Occupation of Germany, 1944–52. Laws and Conventions Enacted to Counter German Appropriations: The Allied Control Council,” in The Spoils of War, ed. Elizabeth Simpson, New York, 1997, p. 116.