Christopher Knight writes up the tale of curatorial skullduggery that deprived the White House of eight Cézannes and enriched the National Gallery’s collection at the expense of the heir of an early Cézanne collector, Charles Loeser:
Loeser died in 1928. In his will, he made three handsome bequests. Two were of Renaissance and Baroque art. Harvard received 262 drawings, forming the core of the Fogg Art Museum’s outstanding collection. Sculptures, paintings, furniture and decorated earthenware went to the city of Florence, where they are now housed in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The White House was allowed to choose eight of his Cézannes. Loeser gave his daughter Matilda, then 15, a life interest in the paintings, which meant they would be sent to Washington upon her death — or earlier, if she wished.
Two years after Loeser died, John Walker, a recent art history graduate of Harvard, moved to Florence. His mission was to oversee the transfer of the drawings in Loeser’s collection to their shared alma mater, and he met frequently with the collector’s widow and the couple’s daughter. […]
Walker urged President Truman to decline the bequest, and the president took the advice of his National Gallery curator. Then Walker had the Cézannes shipped from Italy to Paris. But Ambassador David Bruce — the former son-in-law of National Gallery founder Andrew Mellon and an old Walker friend — said he had no suitable place to hang them.
So Walker offered to take them. He estimated the combined value of the Loeser Cézannes at as much as $3 million in 1951 — the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $27 million today.
Chasing the White House Cézannes (Los Angeles Times)