The Controversial Van Gogh Panting: The Diggers

Vincent van Gogh's "The Diggers" (also known as "Two Diggers among Trees") is an oil painting created in late 1889 during his stay in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. This remarkable artwork is now housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan, United States. To distinguish it from another painting titled "The Diggers (after Jean-François Millet)," completed in 1889, this work is sometimes referred to as "Two Diggers among Trees."


"The Diggers" portrays a scene in St. Remy, France, where two men are diligently excavating a tree stump. The painting not only reflects van Gogh's deep connection with nature but also pays homage to the renowned French artist Jean-François Millet, who frequently depicted similar rural labor scenes. While "The Diggers" is recognized for its artistic quality, it may not be considered one of van Gogh's most financially valuable works. In 2006, the painting was estimated to be worth approximately $10–15 million.


Van Gogh crafted "The Diggers" in 1889, shortly before his untimely passing, while residing in Saint-Rémy, France. Following the artist's demise, the painting came into the possession of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, his sister-in-law. In 1907, it was acquired by Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris and subsequently by Frankfurter Kunstverein in 1909. In 1912, "The Diggers" found its way to Hugo Nathan, a prominent Frankfurt art collector, and his wife Martha (Dreyfus) Nathan, and it remained with Martha following her husband's passing in 1922.

In 1938, Nathan sold the painting for $9,364 to a consortium of dealers – Justin Thannhauser, Alex Ball, and Georges Wildenstein – who then sold it to Detroit art collector Robert H. Tannahill in 1941 for $34,000. Upon Tannahill's passing in 1970, he generously bequeathed the painting, along with over 450 other artworks, to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ownership Controversy

In May 2004, 15 heirs of Martha Nathan contacted the Detroit Institute of Arts after discovering "The Diggers" on the museum's website. They believed that the painting rightfully belonged to Martha Nathan's family, contending that she, a German Jew, had been coerced into selling the artwork due to persecution by the Nazis.

To address these claims, the museum enlisted the services of an art provenance specialist, Laurie Stein, who conducted an exhaustive investigation of the painting's history, concluding her research in 2006. Stein's findings indicated that Martha Nathan had moved "The Diggers" to Basel, Switzerland, in 1930, three years before the Nazis came to power. Furthermore, when she left Germany for Paris in 1937, she had paid all required exit taxes without being forced to sell the painting. In 1938, Nathan sold "The Diggers" for a price consistent with the values of comparable artworks voluntarily sold in Europe at that time. Notably, after World War II, when Nathan sought compensation for property sold under duress, "The Diggers" was not included in her claim. Importantly, the painting was publicly displayed by the museum with acknowledgment of Nathan's prior ownership, and no restitution claim was made by the heirs until 2004.

Subsequently, the museum initiated legal action against the heirs of Martha Nathan, seeking a declaration of ownership. In 2007, the court ruled in favor of the museum. However, in subsequent legal proceedings, the case was dismissed on a technicality related to time limits.

Criticism and Resolution

The museum's handling of the case received criticism from various organizations. The World Jewish Restitution Organization argued that the museum had employed a statute of limitations defense, contrary to the American Museum Guidelines set by the American Alliance of Museums, which advocate for considering restitution claims based on merit. Recognizing the need to address such issues, Congress passed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016 in a bipartisan effort, aimed at preventing such tactics.

The museum contends that it resorted to the statute of limitations only after investing $500,000 in researching the painting's provenance and failing to reach an agreement with the heirs. Some historians have also questioned the strength of the case against the Detroit Institute of Arts. According to Jonathan Petropoulos, the author of "The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany," Martha Nathan's ability to transport the painting to Switzerland in 1930, well before Hitler's rise to power, suggests she had control over the disposition of the artwork. Sidney Bolkosky at the University of Michigan-Dearborn similarly pointed out that while Nathan rightly received restitution for property seized by the Nazis, "The Diggers" was never stolen and was sold outside of Nazi influence.

In essence, the ownership controversy surrounding "The Diggers" exemplifies the complexities and moral considerations inherent in restitution claims involving artworks with historical ties to the Nazi era. While the legal dispute has ended, it continues to serve as a testament to the enduring dialogue about justice, ownership, and historical accountability in the realm of art.

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