Gustave Courbet  (1819–1877)
The Wave (1870)
oil on canvas, 27.56 x 40.16 in. (70 x 102 cm)

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Gustave Courbet’s The Wave was in the collection of Hungarian painter and art collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany prior to its disappearance from a bank vault in the closing months of the war.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the then Deutsch family began taking up a variety of enterprises in Hungary, none more important than sugar production, which they grew into an agricultural and industrial empire. The family was ennobled with a new name, Hatvany-Deutsch, and bestowed aristocratic titles for their economic successes. The Hatvanys had become a prominent and wealthy Jewish family in Hungary. Baron Ferenc Hatvany (1881-1958) was the son of Baron Sándor Hatvany-Deutsch (1852–1913), who, with his cousin József, lead the family’s enterprises through the turn of the century and was active in various industrialist associations. But unlike the previous Hatvany generations which were known as industrialists and capitalists, Ferenc’s generation was known for their involvement in the arts as collectors, writers, and actors.

Ferenc graduated from the Académie Julian in Paris and was a talented painter who amassed an impressive art collection in the twentieth century prior to World War II. In Hungary, it rivaled the private collection of the Herzog family, another prominent and wealthy Jewish family, in quality but not quantity. It was a diverse collection of nearly eight hundred works that featured paintings spanning from the European Old Masters to the French Impressionists, but it also included other pieces such as tapestries and Persian carpets.

Ferenc’s collection endured through the Hungarian Communist Revolution and the short-lived communist state—works were confiscated, but later returned when the communist government collapsed. The same cannot be said for World War II. Hungary aligned itself with the fascist governments of the Axis powers, as it was economically dependent on trade with those nations and could benefit from their territorial gains and protection. Although the nature of its collaboration with Nazi Germany is complicated, Hungary implemented anti-Semitic legislation. Half of Hungary’s Jewish population lived in Budapest alone. As the war progressed and Hungary’s direct participation increased, Ferenc feared for his collection. In 1942, the year after Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, he dispersed his collection, securing some works among vaults in three banks in Budapest under the names of non-Jewish associates for safekeeping. Courbet’s The Wave was deposited for safekeeping at the Hungarian General Credit Bank in Budapest in 1942 in chest no. 1, deposit no. 13158, under the name János Horváth.

When Hungary’s allegiance shifted to the Allies, Nazi Germany invaded in March 1944 and occupied the country to maintain its loyalty. The Nazis implemented the “Final Solution,” escalating the persecution and extermination of Hungarian Jews. Ferenc fled just prior to the invasion and survived the war in hiding. His villa was occupied by SS officers. Its contents, including the portion of the art collection that was not removed for safekeeping, were looted by the Nazis prior to the structure being destroyed by bombs.

In February 1945, the Soviet Red Army captured Budapest. The city's banks, which had been confiscated and controlled by the Nazis and collaborative Hungarian officials the year prior, were now being emptied out by the Soviets. It is assumed that Ferenc's collection stored within may not have been victim to the systematic looting of the Soviet Trophy Brigades due to events immediately after the war. In 1946, after being approached by a Soviet officer, Ferenc ransomed ten paintings that had been removed from the bank vaults including another beloved Courbet, L’Origine du monde, the only work from his collection that was allowed to personally accompany him to Paris in 1947. Others he later smuggled out of Hungary. Additional works from the vaults were discovered in Reinberg, Germany, after the war by the Soviet 49th Army and were transported to the USSR.

Ferenc died in Switzerland in 1958. His collection remains scattered throughout Europe as the result of war. His heirs continue to recover works including another Courbet that had been stored in the Hungarian General Credit Bank and was recovered from a Slovakian art dealer in 2005. The Tate Museum in London returned a John Constable painting in 2014 that was sold at Christie’s in London under an agreement with the heirs. Yet, the bulk of Ferenc’s collection most likely remains in Russia—some even on the walls of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow—with no indications that they will be returned.

Courbet’s The Wave remains missing to this day, its whereabouts unknown since its removal from the bank vault in 1945.

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Courtesy of the Heirs/ Representatives.

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