Undercover avenger

Restoring the Holocaust’s stolen art.

311_Agent Goldblatt (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Agent Goldblatt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the West Side of Manhattan, in a gray-walled waiting room of the Department of Homeland Security, a photograph reminds visitors of the calamity, now almost a decade old, that brought down two towers, left more than 3,000 dead and scarred a nation. But, behind the scenes, in the secured offices, was one agent who helps to remind the world of another tragedy that began more than seven decades ago and left six million dead – the Holocaust.
Conjuring images of the Holocaust brings to mind those dreadful chimneys funneling human smoke over the European continent or shaven, gaunt prisoners standing beside piles of corpses. Some may visualize those pits filled with eyeglasses and shoes, things that belonged to the murdered, now on display in museums. It’s rare that one would equate artists such as Klimt, Cezanne or Degas with the genocide.
But Senior Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies under the DHS umbrella, does. Goldblatt is among the few working to recover stolen Holocaust art and antiquities, though unlike the others, she does so with a badge and a gun.
During Hitler’s rise to power, the Führer, who had failed as an artist, had dreamed up more than just the Final Solution and world domination. It was his goal to plunder art for Germany and purge “degenerate” work – a term Hitler adopted to describe the art of Jews, avant-garde German artists and those whose vision echoed beliefs incompatible with Nazi ideology. All across Europe, museums packed up shop, Nazi castles filled with looted artwork and Jewish art collectors were coerced into selling their collections for a pittance they would never receive.
When the war ended, some works were repatriated; yet numerous masterpieces and valuable religious artifacts were destroyed, looted once more by soldiers or remained missing.
Today, these pieces are reemerging at auctions, on museum walls, or in private collections.
That’s where Goldblatt comes in.
“I’m here to pick up a painting from Bonnie Goldblatt,” a young woman announced while I sat in the waiting room prior to the interview. As it happened, Goldblatt was returning Paul Klee’s Portrait in the Garden, a painting stolen from a Manhattan art gallery 21 years earlier, to the young woman.
After the repatriation, I was escorted into the locked-down compound to meet with Goldblatt. (Along for the interview was the public affairs officer who stayed on to censor questions that would put her cloak-and-dagger tactics at stake. “We’re not going to get into that,” he’d say).
FOR BONNIE GOLDBLATT, art had always been a part of life. As a child, she toured museums with her mother. As an agent, she started in Customs, stopping questionable artwork entering the US. Her first case ended with the recovery of Winslow Homer’s Off Gloucester Harbor, which thieves tried to disguise by painting seagulls and two sailboats onto the original watercolor seascape.
It was 1995 when the Holocaust became a part of her professional canvas. She was reading the arts section of The New York Times when she noticed that a panel would convene in New York to debate ownership rights of art stolen during World War II. Goldblatt attended the conference, acquired the names of those present and sent a letter to the attendees – lawyers, archivists, researchers and art buffs – introducing her program. Those who responded became her sources.
From there, her role at the agency changed. She was no longer just a seizer of artwork, but graduated to become a fixer of past misdeeds, repatriating Holocaust art to the rightful owners.
“It is my heritage. I’m sensitive to all of this... The United States wasn’t involved when [the Holocaust] was happening. As part of the United States government, I recognize...we recognize what needs to be done,” Goldblatt said.
Being stationed in New York City – where numerous survivors settled and works of art with questionable provenances surfaced – allowed her “to develop this niche.” It’s also the site of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office.
Goldblatt’s job is not the cat-and-mouse pursuit that the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair painted of art thieves and detectives.
Think The Old Man and the Sea: Much patience is required to hook the big one. There are online databases to pore over and “war rooms,” a term she uses to describe the massive foreign archives, to scour, all in the hope of finding art whose provenances were erased in the ’30s and ’40s by Nazi invasions, liquidations and murders.
In Goldblatt’s line of work, to hook the big one sometimes means waiting for death.
“Whoever is in possession of the paintings now is more likely to sell them,” she explained, because some of this art has been handed down to heirs oblivious to the painting’s provenance. These looted pieces then start popping up for sale. Furthermore, criminals who are aware of their paintings’ origins are also becoming more brazen and bringing the pieces to market since the last true owners are likely gone.
Goldblatt does, however, have some faith in the inheritors: “As the heirs start receiving the artwork and they do some research and find out where it comes from, they step forward and surrender the object to us.”
But safeguards are in place to prevent the unscrupulous from succeeding. Countries and individuals are registering with stolen art databases, springing Goldblatt into action, dutifully helping to right a 70-year wrong. Each piece she repatriates helps to echo remembrance.
GOLDBLATT’S FIRST Holocaust repatriation was in 2003, when she recovered the Sefer Yetzira, a rare 14th-century kabbalistic manuscript that had been looted by the Nazis from Vienna’s Jewish library and was listed in the auction catalog of Kestenbaum and Company.
The auction house turned the manuscript over to the authorities upon request.
Afterward, there was a big gap in Holocaust repatriations. The agency had undergone many changes after 9/11 and priorities shifted, drawing resources away from art and antiquities work. However, 2009 was the year of Goldblatt’s resurgence. With the help of the US Attorney’s Office, she repatriated four objects that had been looted by the Nazis.
It began with two works once belonging to the late Jewish art dealer Dr. Max Stern, who had been coerced into selling 228 pieces.
First, on April 2, Goldblatt seized Portrait of a Musician Playing a Bagpipe from Lawrence Steigrad’s art gallery and returned the piece on Holocaust Remembrance Day later that month. In early May, because of the media coverage of the Bagpipe repatriation, art dealer Richard Feigen voluntarily revealed that he had unknowingly purchased another Stern piece – Ludovico Carracci’s depiction of St. Jerome – in 2000 from the very auction house in Cologne, Germany, that Stern had been forced to consign his collection to in 1937, proceeds that Stern never saw.
Steigrad, who was unaware that Bagpipe had been stolen when he acquired it, recalls Goldblatt’s arrival to his dealership in an e-mail message. She was incognito and “insisted on seeing Bagpipe. I came out to explain that we had just found out [days before] that that particular painting was being returned because we were informed that it was in a forced sale. At that point Bonnie took out her gold badge... I was shocked at the deception and very mad,” Steigrad said about the agent, whom he described as “a very attractive young lady.”
“The work is great and we support it 100 percent,” Steigrad said about Goldblatt’s efforts, but added, “She just should know who the crooks are and treat respectable citizens (art dealers as well) in a more honest way.”
BUT THIS IS the protocol for an undercover agent dealing in a world where patient criminals profit from the stolen fragments of one of the world’s worst crimes. Though Goldblatt may be angering and deceiving art dealers, repatriations like Stern’s have brought her unit recognition.
“The more we do, the better we get,” she told me. “The more we do, the more our name gets out there.”
On November 9, the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht – when Nazis destroyed Jewish shops, homes and synagogues, and battered and arrested Jewish citizens in Germany and Austria – Goldblatt returned a 16th-century two-volume rabbinic Bible to Vienna’s Jewish community. The manuscripts turned up at Kestenbaum’s again, and an undercover Goldblatt arrived. After confirming that the stolen Bible was on the premises by locating the obliterated tag WIEN, Goldblatt met with Kestenbaum, who had recognized her from six years before.
Once again he cooperated and removed the piece from auction so it could begin its journey back home.
One month later, Goldblatt seized a rare Antoine Carte portrait, which depicted a little girl with blonde pigtails, wearing a blue dress, sitting beside her pet rabbit. The painting had belonged to a Jewish family in Belgium who had been forced to flee during the war. The Art Loss Register, an international database of lost and stolen art, antiques, and collectibles, located the painting at a Long Island dealership.
Goldblatt moved in, matching the portrait to a photograph of the same child. Sixty-nine years after it had been stolen, the painting was returned to its owner, who happened to be the timeless little girl in the blue dress.
“The Holocaust left her with such a scar,” Goldblatt said, “that she was scared if she came out with the painting” – to the ceremonial repatriation at the Jewish Museum of Belgium – “it would be stolen again.”
These restitutions, however, were uncomplicated in comparison to the seizure of Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally, which was seized from the Museum of Modern Art in 1998.
“It’s mammoth,” Goldblatt said when describing the case, adding that if all goes in their favor, the “law would set big precedents.”
The battle for Wally was prompted by a special report in The New York Times entitled “The Zealous Collector” by Judith Dobrzynski.
The article, published on December 24, 1997, explained how Lea Bondi Jarray, a Viennese art dealer, was forced to surrender the painting to the Nazis before fleeing for her life. After the war, Mrs. Bondi, as she was known, discovered that Wally had been found by American officials and was being housed in the Belvedere, a palace for Austrian modern art. However, while at the Belvedere, it was accidentally mixed in with another person’s collection. Bondi asked a seemingly trustworthy art collector, Dr. Rudolf Leopold, to retrieve the painting for her. But Leopold purchased it for himself and disregarded Bondi’s pleas for her property.
At the time of the Times report, Wally was on loan to MoMA from the Leopold Museum.
It was set to leave New York for Vienna despite the allegations that it had been looted and never returned to its rightful owner.
“My husband said to me, ‘Can’t you do something about this?’” Goldblatt recalled. So she did. Goldblatt confiscated the portrait, which has sat in storage under court order ever since. The trial is set for July and the lawyers for Bondi’s heirs must prove that the Leopold Museum knew that the painting had been looted when it was acquired.
DESPITE THE IMPASSE, Wally’s seizure has already set the wheels of restitution in motion for plundered paintings like Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Furthermore, it has prompted Austria’s parliament to pass a law that expedites the return of art looted from Jews, from which it appears there are vast amounts in the country’s museums.
“All governments and museums should take a good look at the provenance of their inventory,” Goldblatt suggested. “If they have something they shouldn’t have... they should return it. I don’t think museums should be treated any differently than individuals. They still have a duty to return things to their rightful owner.”
Goldblatt also convenes with the State Department’s Office of Holocaust Issues. “We want to establish guidelines that other countries will adhere to that make it easier for us to identify and possibly return artwork that was taken during the Holocaust,” she explained.
“Bonnie is unlike any civil servant I have encountered before,” said Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, one of the organizations she often collaborates with. “She is extremely dedicated and passionate about her work...Bonnie’s efforts and those of her art and antiquities team” – who are trained by Goldblatt – “keep the pressure on the art world and the memory of these events alive.”
“Every time I return a Holocaust painting I just get teary-eyed,” Goldblatt said.
“Make no mistake,” Marinello warned, “there is one tough agent behind that gentle demeanor and pleasant smile.”
“There’s a reason why I signed up to be an agent,” said Goldblatt. “I’d like to get it all back.”

The writer is completing a nonfiction book, My Grandparents’ Holocaust. He is a columnist for The Faster Times.