30 January 2015

Sometimes It Takes a Village to Correct a Historical Wrong

Madonna and Child in a landscape
by Ori Z. Soltes

No two cases that deal with Nazi-plundered art are identical. There always seems to be some twist or turn to one situation that hasn't manifested itself in other situations. And what leads to rectification can be complicated and also sometimes surprising.

Back in 1999, HARP was made aware of a 1518 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder that was at the time (and remains) in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It appeared that the painting, a small, beautiful Madonna and Child in a Landscape, had been plundered from the collections of Phillip von Gomperz, a successful Jewish businessman from Vienna, Austria. His surviving heirs were, at the time of its discovery in North Carolina, two grand-nieces in their 80s, Marianne and Cornelia Hainisch, who were not Jewish--a reminder that this issue is not by any means always a simple Nazi-Jewish matter, since the Nazis plundered from others as well, but also since the vagaries of life can and sometimes did lead Jews after the Holocaust to abandon the faith that was the primary object of Nazi hostility.

One of the founders of HARP and a key figure within it, Willi Korte, did the exhaustive research that showed unequivocally the provenance chain of the painting, from Gomperz’ acquisition of it to March 10, 1938 when the Nazis officially arrived into Austria (the Anschluss) and the Gomperz family was forced to flee (Gomperz himself would survive until 1948, dying in Switzerland); from the 1940 Nazi confiscation of the Gomperz collection, including Cranach’s Madonna and Child, which was then acquired by Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna; to its appearance in the New York art market in the 1950s, where it was purchased by a California collector primarily of medieval German art, Marianne Khuner; to her passing on the painting to the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMofA) in 1964 on a long-term loan that, through her will, became an outright gift in 1984, at the time of her death.
Baldur von Schirach

One can find a brief resume of this chronology if one goes to the site, ArtThemis, operated by the Art-Law Centre at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. There are, however, several things missing from what is presented as the official account. If one references Emily Yellin’s February 4, 2000, NY Times article, as the ArtThemis website does, there are, not surprising, the same omissions. One absence is the far greater chronological detail that Willi Korte had provided than what is presented on the website. This is fair enough: the website is presumably designed to give a thumbnail summary of the case and not an exhaustive history of it. A second absence, however, is the lack of any reference to Mr. Korte at all. Aside from writing him out of history these two omissions also contribute to what is a fairly widespread failure to realize how tedious and time-consuming the tracking down of such a provenance history often is—and in this case, certainly was.
Willi Korte
There is another matter that is lost if one reads an account as limited as that on the ArtThemis website, or the NY Times article, both of which merely jump in their chronology to 1999 and credit the Commission for Art Recovery with sending a letter to the Director of the NCMofA. The letter is simply credited in the website, without comment, with “detailing evidence of the painting’s history... it also indicated the names of the two sisters” who were the claimants; the ArtThemis entry and the article present the Museum as simply deciding to investigate the provenance claim and the following year restituting the painting to the sisters who agreed, in gratitude, to sell the painting back to the museum at well below its market value.

What is missing are a number of key details, key players and key complications—aside from the enormous lacuna of credit to Willi Korte. The fact is that Korte himself could certainly not have induced the Museum to restitute the painting on his own. He turned to the NY Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) and its then-Associate Director, Monica Dugot, who corroborated Willi’s research and spearheaded the initial attempt to ask the Museum to consider the claim, with the hope that, as a government institution, albeit from another state, the HCPO might carry weight that would be more substantially felt by the Museum and its Director. For the fact is that, faced with letters from both CAR and HCPO, the Museum was recalcitrant about even entering into a discussion about the matter.

By that point, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) was also involved beyond Korte’s initial efforts. HARP wrote to the Museum Director, offering its expertise and assistance in coming to some resolution of this issue, and received a minimal response—that the matter was “being looked into” and that no help was needed. At that time HARP was also able to view correspondence between the North Carolina Governor and the Museum Director—for the Museum is, by definition, a state-governed institution. The governor made it clear that the Museum need not feel obliged to abide by the proposals taking shape in the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and that had also been articulated by the so-called Washington Principles—these came out of a December 1998 conference sponsored by the State Department that HARP was instrumental in helping to organize—with respect to provenance in general, and specifically as it pertains to art concerning which there might be suspicion that it had been plundered by the Nazis due to provenance holes between about 1930 and 1945.

HARP was also aware of another chain of correspondence. The Museum had galvanized key members of the Jewish community of Raleigh-Durham to write letters to the Hainisch sisters, telling them how important the painting was for the museum and specifically how it could be an important instrument for Holocaust education, with an augmentation of its label and a series of programs built around it. (That campaign was apparently carried out with complete unawareness that the sisters were not Jewish!)

With the encouragement to the NCMofA to ignore the threefold—HCPO, CAR and HARP—request, together with its own strategic pushback against responding effectively to that request, the Museum remained far from forthcoming. But, in the end, it did come to the very sort of agreement suggested at the end of the ArtThemis chronology. How? Both because the Museum Curator (as opposed to the Museum Director) came to see the importance of facing the claim head-on, and because another member of the HARP team, Janine Benton, knew a very active and interested reporter in North Carolina, and spoke to him. He in turn wrote a serious and excoriating article about the matter in the local Press.

It was, more than anything, the embarrassment that the Museum experienced as a consequence of the media discussion—and criticism—that built on that initial article that pushed the Director finally both to “investigate the claim” and ultimately to reach out to the Hainisch sisters through Monica Dugot. They, in their graciousness and their gratitude that the situation had not come to a legal confrontation, agreed to the terms that are now part of the historical record—and in the end did set an example to the American Museum community with regard to non-legal discussion/negotiations in the face of this sort of claim . A far cry, however, from the ArtThemis summary that refers to “the swift friendly settlement of this case was possible thanks to the Museum’s refusal to rebuff the restitution claim”—which summary is also found in the NY Times article. The painting remains in North Carolina. Its label presumably tells some of the story of its ownership, plunder and wanderings until it arrived into the Museum, and one might suppose that there are indeed education programs that use it as a starting point for a discussion of a range of Holocaust-related subjects, particularly appropriate to a location that has a fairly long history of racial, if not religious oppression.
North Carolina Museum of Art

There is an epilogue to this narrative that arrives at its denouement through the power of the Press and in this case the ability of the Press to shame a public institution into righting a wrong in spite of itself. Currently, an elderly French woman struggles to regain possession of a small Pissarro painting, stolen from her father by the Nazis—that has, through a chain of sales and purchases similar to those of the Gomperz Cranach in which, at least in the 1950s, the gallery that was doing the selling ignored the obvious clues regarding its Nazi-era provenance, and misled or outright lied to the American purchaser who, perhaps, asked a few too few questions—that ended up two decades ago in the hands of the Fred Jones Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in Norman, Oklahoma. Its discovery there within the past two years by the claimant has led to an ugly battle. The President of OU apparently knows no shame, and even in the face of enormous adverse publicity, including vociferous excoriation on the part of state politicians, has refused to consider her claim.

What in the end will induce justice to arise in Oklahoma? That remains to be seen and is another story for another day with its own twists and turns. The outcome at this point is certainly not that of the outcome in North Carolina 15 years ago, in spite of the pressure of the Press—and in any case, no two of the many stories pertaining to Nazi-plundered art are identical.

A new art loss database, ArtClaim, takes its maiden voyage in London

by Angelina Giovani, HARP correspondent, London (UK)*

On the evening of Monday, January 19, 2015 the London-based Art Recovery Group used the Royal Institute of Great Britain to launch its long-awaited commercial ArtClaim Database. That evening, the event brought together individuals representing many facets of the art market, graduate students from Kingston University and other London-based institutions, and a few art aficionados. The event was elegant and relaxed, but the launch was not what most expected, since there was no actual launch, but rather an announcement that the database is now available for consultation.

Chris Marinello

The unveiling of the database turned into what some referred to as a ‘wasted opportunity’ that should have been seized upon to provide a live demonstration of the database and an in depth guide to using and understanding the high and low levels of the database. In a six-minute long address to the attendees, founder and CEO of Art Recovery International Chris Marinello, once described as the "Sherlock Holmes of art crime",  started with a brief overview of the company’s progress this past year. Marinello, a former senior official of the Art Loss Register, emphasized ARI's successful involvement in some of the biggest art cases of the past year including ‘Woman in Blue in Front of the Fireplace’ by Henri Matisse found in a museum in Norway and restituted to the heirs of the French dealer Paul Rosenberg; the Gurlitt case in Munich, to name only a few.
Woman in blue in front of the fireplace, Henri Matisse

The ArtClaim database includes stolen, looted and otherwise claimed works of art. Unlike other similar for-profit databases, it purports to have over 500 searchable fields, fully integrated image recognition software, free loss registration, access to new and exclusive data sources for current and historic losses, intuitive and responsive user interface and an unspecified number of provenance researchers and analysts outside of the United Kingdom.

I had the chance to talk to most of the company's employees attending the event- Jerome Hasler, Shannon McNaught, Ariane Moser and Alice Barren-Bradley. They are all extremely enthusiastic and friendly people. They managed to be at all places at once, answered as many questions as possible and even circulated with an iPad that gave those interested a chance to have a look at the loss registration interface of the proprietary database. They were also kind enough to answer by email the following questions in the days following the event.

I would like to clarify whether 5000 items are entered on the database per week or per month? The brochure says per month, but I believe everyone I talked to during the event, said per week.

At the time the brochure was sent to print we were able to register around 5,000 items a month. However, thanks to some excellent new hires in our registrations team, we are now adding around 5,000 items a week to the ArtClaim Database – as mentioned at the launch. With several additional members of staff joining our registrations team soon, our capacity will continue to grow and we are confident that this will be reflected in the increased number of items we are able to add to our database each week.

What does that mean in terms of personnel? Entering that much data on the system must require a very large group.
Ensuring that our registrations and searches meet our very high standards for quality is not something we want to rush. Our current staff of analysts is sufficient for the amount of work we currently do, but as we take on more work we are already in process of expanding our registrations team and further expansion will remain a priority.

Is ArtClaim planning to expand? Is a new ArtClaim branch opening up in New York?

ArtClaim has been very fortunate so far to attract an excellent group of employees both in our offices in the UK and in India. We are making some new hires in our registration team but currently our focus is on consolidating the expertise we currently have rather than expanding too rapidly. Once this has been achieved our growth overseas will certainly be a consideration, but our current focus is on meeting the needs of our clients in Europe and Asia. Our India office provides us with an excellent platform for new business in the growing art market where we aspire to build more business. [Editor’s note: interestingly enough, the Art Loss Register also does its ‘fact-checking’ in India].

How does the company fund itself? Do finder’s fees, percentages from recoveries and retainers make for a big part of the income?

Through Art Recovery International we provide a number of specialized services to our clients, advising on a range of issues around art and cultural heritage. Revenue is primarily generated from our corporate registration and research contracts and from the wide range of services offered within our recovery work. Location and recovery fees are calculated on a case-by-case basis. [Editor’s note: Although Art Recovery International did not specify the actual percentage fee that it collects for recovery of looted objects, the Art Loss Register collects 18 percent. That fee might vary as it does with other groups like the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe or CLEA.]

The service is free for law enforcement agencies. Who else could benefit? Is there a list of organizations that ArtClaim plans on working closely with?

The entire range of Art Recovery Group’s services is free to law enforcement agencies and some of our other services, such as free loss registrations on the ArtClaim Database, are free to everyone. By necessity a great deal of our work is pro bono but we do not publish a list of the organizations to which this is available. We encourage all organizations to contact us and explore the different ways in which we may be able to work together.

Would the service be free to researchers working on behalf of a victim of loss?
Outside of law enforcement, any free services are calculated on a case by case basis. Typically searches of the ArtClaim Database are charged at a standard rate of £100.

It would be helpful to know how many of the items entered in the database are loot from WWII, and conflict areas such as Bosnia and Syria. Should we expect ArtClaim to produce any kind of reports or statistics regarding the type of content entered in the database? If yes, will they be public?

Whilst the confidentiality of our records is paramount, it is certainly an aspiration of ours to bring reliable statistics about the items registered on the ArtClaim Database to the public. As a company we are also considering wider statistics-based research projects concerning the criminal elements of the art market that would be publicly available upon publication.

Are there provenance researchers working for ArtClaim? How many? What are the selecting criteria when it comes to hiring new members?

We are very fortunate to have a network of provenance researchers around the world that work for us on a case-by-case basis. Access to records in libraries or institutions at all corners of the world is a necessity for thorough provenance research and our network allows us a great deal of flexibility and reach. [Editor’s note: it appears that ARI aspires to establish such a global network and that it is currently working on such a vast undertaking.]

I would also like to address the issue of confidentiality. Is there a clause that limits ArtClaim from approaching heirs or possible claimants, based on the information entered on the database by a researcher?

Unless information entered into the ArtClaim Database pertains directly and immediately to an active criminal investigation, we will not share the content of registrations or searches. In the instance that a match is returned and the claimant known, the expert recovery and resolution services of Art Recovery International would be offered to help in the resolution of any outstanding claim.

There is a lot of pressure on ArtClaim to do this right and there is a vast market for their services. The road that Chris Marinello and his team, many of whom come from the Art Loss Register, have borrowed has been paved by their predecessors at ALR who have shown them exactly what it is that they should not be doing. There is no real competition, except from the Art Loss Register. The most important goal should be to establish reliability and transparency. No double standards, no cutting corners and no operating in the grey zone.

*Angelina Giovani, HARP’s correspondent in London, is a Master’s student at Kingston University in London specializing in Art Market Appraisal. She is a graduate of the American College of Greece in Athens and is an alumna of the ARCA certification program based in Amelia, Italy, and of the Provenance Research Training Program (PRTP) which is run by the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) in Prague, CZ.

29 January 2015

The never-ending post-Gurlitt “process”

by Marc Masurovsky

What is one to make of all this hoopla concerning provenance research in Germany? It took an ill-managed investigation into the activities of an octogenarian art collector, Cornelius Gurlitt, followed by a raucous international outcry to stimulate a debate over how museums in Germany treat their collections and the extent of knowledge they possess about the origins of the objects they own and curate.
Monika Gruetters to the left of Chancellor Angela Merkl

Since the announcement in early 2014 by Monika Gruetters, German Minister for culture, that she would increase funding for provenance research into the origins of art works in German state collections, the post-Gurlitt “process” has become even more bogged down in bureaucratic molasses as if the creation of yet another organization will magically make the problem of looted art simply go away.

The new entity, German Lost Art Foundation (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste), will move to Magdeburg, Germany, in April 2015. Magdeburg is where one can find the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg, run by Michael Franz and his deputy, Andrea Baresel-Brand. It is the official German governmental database on art looted during the Third Reich, known as lostart.de. One can find in that database the items which make up the residual of the Gurlitt collection, euphemistically known as the “Schwabing Art Trove.” The Foundation will receive 6 million dollars a year to bolster provenance research, or triple the annual allocation to provenance research in Germany up to now.

Judging by Ms. Gruetters’ own statements regarding the creation of the German Lost Art Foundation, the Office of Provenance Research (Arbeitsstelle fuer provenienzforschung), run by Uwe Hartmann, and the “Degenerate Art” program at the Free University of Berlin directed by Meike Hoffmann, will remain independent and might benefit from the largesse of the new Foundation.

Professor Uwe Schneede heads up the honorary board of the Foundation and Dr. Hermann Simon chairs its Research Council. Prof. Schneede is a highly respected figure in the German art world and Dr. Simon, head of the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin, a leading scholar of Jewish life in Germany and especially the Berlin Jewish community.
Hermann Simon
Uwe Schneede
A board of trustees (Stiftungsrat) constitutes the governing body of the Foundation which comprises 15 drawn from Federal, regional and municipal institutions throughout Germany. One big question concerns the funding of the Foundation: do the monies come only from German public sources or will there be an expectation that private entities should contribute to the Foundation? If so, which ones? How much information will the public receive on the underwriting of the Foundation and how it spends money on research?
The Foundation's Stiftungsrat
Added to this top-heavy approach to provenance research, let’s not forget the Kuratorium, an advisory body consisting of 9 to 11 individuals, some or all coming from outside Germany. Are they specialists, pundits, heavy lifters in international reparations negotiations relative to assets looted during WWII? None of this is clear. Why so many people to oversee provenance research in Germany? Are these 11 advisors going to be savvy about the intricacies of the ways in which artistic, cultural and ritualistic objects changed hands illegally between 1933 and 1945 or is this going to be another political love fest aimed at placating foreign critics of the German way of examining cases of cultural plunder dating back to the Third Reich?

For a full reading of the articles establishing the Foundation, please click on the following link:


22 January 2015

A sneak preview romp through Metro Curates in New York City

Source: Metro Curates

by Marc Masurovsky

This unusual annual art fair attracts dealers from across the United States and occasionally from Europe and the Far East who exhibit all sorts of items tagged as folk art, tramp art, “primitive” art, odd art, mixed in with archaeological gems, indigenous artifacts, and contemporary art.

In fact, the trend these days appears to be to mix indigenous artifacts with modern art—the contrast is there to stimulate interest, something that does not work all the time.

At the sneak preview yesterday, June 21, 2015, at 125 W. 18th Street, in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, thick crowd of gawkers, art world aficionados, those who want to be seen and see, mingled, pressed elbows, snuck into trendy booths and generally enjoyed the wide availability of alcohol. Wine on the house!

Four galleries stood out as purveyors of antiquities and indigenous pieces, one from Birmingham, Michigan, one from Chicago, Illinois, and two from New York City.

One displayed a fairly special Navajo mask or headdress produced in the early years of the 20th century. A casual mention of the sensitive nature of displaying such items for sale sent one of the gallery reps searching for answers.

Those selling Hopi artifacts were quick to say that some of their items had been purchased from a Hopi-certified “market” and obtained regular shipments of artifacts, a galling comment knowing how hypersensitive the Hopi nation is about the sale of items removed from its lands without the consent of its representatives. Finally, one gallery stood out with its array of unique pieces from Olmec culture, ranging in age from 2000 to 5000 years ago.
Olmec mask, ca. 1500 B.C.

When a gallery aide was asked about the origins of the pieces, he answered rather assuredly that he had no idea how these pieces entered the United States and had no idea as to the archaeological sites from which they had been extracted. Gorgeous they were, more worrisome was the absence of provenance and a lingering “the less we know, the better everyone is” attitude. Well, one of the items, an Olmec mask, is going for $225,000. The average price for small Olmec statuettes ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 US dollars.

The market continues to be unabashed when it comes to the sale of antiquities and Native American artifacts. And, even more distressing, there are no official means by which to ensure that licitly-obtained objects are the only ones being offered to the unwitting, uncurious, uncaring buyer.