This Family Has Been Trying to Recover a Nazi-Looted Painting for 17 Years—and They’re Still Waiting

The returning of Nazi-looted artwork isn’t always the smoothest process. Just ask Alain Monteagle, a 77-year-old retired history teacher who’s been trying to retrieve one stolen painting for 17 years.

Back in 2007, the Netherlands restituted Isaac van Ostade’s Unloading the Hay Wagon to the heirs of John and Anna Jaffé. But because of an issue with paperwork, the family has still not received the painting, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

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“We, the heirs, are regarded in the Dutch system as crooks who are eager to make money on a sale, not as victims of looting,” Monteagle told the Times. “The longer this goes on, the more complicated it becomes, and eventually there will be no one to receive the painting who saw it before the war.”

The piece was originally acquired by the Jaffés. The British-Jewish couple lived in France and owned art by Rembrandt, Goya, and other masters. After the couple died, the Nazis seized their artwork, and Unloading the Hay Wagon was eventually sold to Hitler’s second in command, Hermann Göring. After the war, the painting was mistakenly returned to the Netherlands, where it was displayed in a museum for decades.

Monteagle, a great-grandnephew of Anna Jaffé, has spent years trying to recover his family’s missing artworks. The retrieval of the van Ostade seemed like it would be simple, with the Dutch Restitution Commission taking just a year to say that the painting should be returned to the Jaffé heirs. But that requires validation from a civil-law notary, and the one working on this case says he hasn’t received the required paperwork to complete the transaction.

“This is my longest-lasting case ever,” Maarten Meijer, an hourly contractor with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency, told the Times. “I do have some of the documents, but not 100 percent.”

Meijer would like to see the case wrap up, and Monteagle said he doesn’t blame Meijer personally. But both seem quite frustrated by the Dutch bureaucracy that’s left them in this pickle for almost two decades. Since 2007, three of Monteagle’s older relatives have died while waiting for the restitution of the van Ostade, and there’s just one surviving family member who remembers seeing the painting before the war.

“I feel some indignation now,” Monteagle said. “I’m worried that I won’t see it before I die, either.”

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