A Question of Ownership
Attorney Howard J. Trienens (EB45, L49, H95) never realized the impact a single painting by French master Edgar Degas would have on his career.
In 1995 Trienens, a partner with the Chicago firm of Sidley, Brown, Austin & Wood, was poised to defend a local collector in a highly publicized legal battle over a Degas painting, Landscape with Smokestacks. The plaintiffs, heirs of a Dutch Jewish couple who were killed during the Holocaust, made international headlines by claiming that Nazi looters stole the painting from their family during World War II.
The case was settled out of court in 1998. Ownership of the painting was divided between the two parties, with the collector donating his half to the Art Institute of Chicago and the museum purchasing the other half of the painting's appraised value from the plaintiffs.
But in Trienens' mind, the case was not yet settled. He was intrigued by the documented evidence and disapproved of the influence the media had had on public opinion during the dispute.
"In a case that does not get settled out of court, there is an opinion of a court that ends the matter," Trienens says. "This case ended without any such opinion."
So Trienens decided to write a book on the painting's past. Landscape with Smokestacks: The Case of the Allegedly Plundered Degas was published by Northwestern University Press in 2000.
In his book Trienens outlines the conflict and offers evidence in the form of documents and personal accounts that never made it to court. Trienens includes data to help readers ascertain whether the painting was sent to Paris for safekeeping during the war or whether it was sent there to be sold. That in turn raises the question of whether the art was actually stolen or just sold as directed. The family claims the former, but Trienens' evidence leans toward the latter position. "The Germans were very evil, but they were very meticulous about record keeping," he says. "If the painting had been stolen, we would have a record of it."
Trienens, who has served on Northwestern's Board of Trustees since 1967, adds that a different painting belonging to the family was in fact stolen and that a record of the theft exists.
The book also analyzed the impact the media had on setting the defense up for a fair trial. For Trienens this case was much different from any other lawsuit he has worked on because of the number of phone calls he received from the press every day. "The collector thought the other side was trying to put pressure on the case through the newspapers, and he didn't like that at all," Trienens says. "There was a deliberate effort by the family to have this case highly publicized."
His own opinions notwithstanding, Trienens worked hard to present both sides of the argument. "I felt there was a story underlying the case, and I wanted to lay the facts out so people could read about it," he says. "All of the information is public record, but it's hard to find on your own."
Susan Harris, director of Northwestern University Press, feels Trienens' book is a needed addition to Holocaust literature. "We have an established Holocaust studies list, and we felt the book provided a different and valuable perspective on Holocaust restitution cases," she says.
Trienens is hopeful that new evidence may someday come to light that will fully resolve the ownership mystery.
Emily Ramshaw (J03)