28 November 2017

Abrupt cancellation of an exhibit on Max Stern

by Angelina Giovani

The following text can be found on a petition to protest the cancellation of an exhibit on a Jewish art dealer named Max Stern, who lived in Düsseldorf, Germany, until forced to liquidate his gallery and its inventory because he was Jewish. An exhibit highlighting his life and accomplishments was scheduled to open at the Stadtmuseum of Düsseldorf in February 2018.

However, Thomas Geisel, the lord mayor of the city of Düsseldorf. decided to cancel the exhibit. It had been in preparation for the past three years, and was to travel from Düsseldorf to the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel and to the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Max Stern was a Jewish art dealer and collector who inherited his family’s renowned art gallery in Düsseldorf in 1934, at the time of his father’s death. A victim of Nazi persecution, he was prohibited by the Reichskammer der bildenden Künst (RKdbK) to practice as an art dealer and was instructed to liquidate his gallery and its assets. Stern auctioned off his gallery stock in two sales, selling the works at below market value. The first forced sale took place at the Lempertz auction house in Cologne on November 13, 1937; Stern sold the residual at a second forced sale in Düsseldorf on December 15, 1937. He left for Paris on December 23, 1937 and on July 12, 1939 he lost his German citizenship.

The exhibition on Max Stern’s life is a big step into bringing forward issues which emphasize problems of ownership history and the need for a continuous debate on how we approach provenance research. The reason given by the city government for the cancellation the exhibition is “the current demands for information and restitution in German museums in connection with the “Galerie Max Stern”. It is for these issues that it is of paramount importance for the exhibition to be allowed to take place in the hope that it will encourage other similar ventures in the future.

We urge Thomas Geisel, Lord Mayor of Düsseldorf, to reconsider his decision and allow the exhibition to proceed as planned. The Max Stern exhibition would encourage a positive and productive discussion about the events that took place in Nazi Germany and mark a decisive step in detaching the city’s history from its troubled past, which saw it welcome nationalist socialist ideas and characters of the likes of Hildebrand Gurlitt in the 1940s or 50s, when he became director of the Kunstverein in Düsseldorf.

A lot of effort, resources and hard work by serious individuals and institutions went into this project and it would be unethical to take such extreme measures at the eleventh hour, against a project that aims to educate and inform the public. This exhibition on Max Stern could very well be a giant leap towards addressing the very issues on restitution of Nazi cultural dispossessions of Jewish-owned property that seem to underscore the cancellation of the exhibition.

With the above in mind you are encouraged to sign this petition so that we can show that there are many who care and believe that the course of action chosen by the Lord Mayor of Düsseldorf is unacceptable and deeply troubling.

To sign the petition, click on the link.

31 October 2017

Economics and plunder

by Marc Masurovsky

If you ever wonder how an economic analysis of “enemy” assets conducted by the German plundering agency—Einsatzstab Reichleiter Rosenberg [ERR]—can shape and refine its targeting decisions, consider the case of:

La Société auxiliaire pour le Commerce et l’Industrie, based at 29, rue de Berri, in Paris.

The name sounds innocuous enough, most likely an investment group run by wealthy shareholders. Who might they be?

-Société anonyme d’Etudes et de Participations Industrielles et commerciales, located at the same address as the Société auxiliaire.
-Maurice de Rothschild
-Edouard de Rothschild
-Henri de Rothschild
-Societe de Rothschild Freres, 21 rue Laffitte, Paris
-Guy de Rothschild
-Estate of Raba Deutsch
-Pierre de Gunzbourg
-Estate of Arthur Weisweiller
-Georgette Deutsch
-Edouard Esmond
-Estate of Robert de Gunzbourg
-Andre Goldet.

[Source: AJ 38/402-404 Commissariat General aux Questions Juives, in RG 43.023M US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Reel 72, Washington, DC]

The ERR and the Vichy government engaged in a shameless rivalry to plunder as best as possible the above shareholders of the innocuous-sounding Societe Auxiliaire as well as thousands of other Jews whose property and assets they coveted. The Rothschild family, its members, its relatives, close and distant, its business partners and associates, its friends, were all viewed as "plunderable" by the National Socialists and their local collaborators, especially the French anti-semites in Vichy and in the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, the main anti-Jewish entity in charge of stripping every Jewish person on French territory of his or her property and livelihood.

Pierre de Gunzbourg and Edouard Esmond had the misfortune of living in the building requisitioned by the ERR as its headquarters in Paris, at 54, avenue d’Iena. Esmond was a special individual--a self-professed dandy, breeder and trainer of race horses and a permanent fixture at the race track and in a Rothschild tea party. His daughter, Diana Esmond, was a pioneering golf professional as well as a gifted artist. In fact, the vast majority of modern works stolen from Esmond's apartment in Paris were signed by his daughter.

At the end of WWII, Andre Goldet was the vice president of the American Joint Distribution Committee, one of the most important relief and humanitarian organizations operating in liberated territories of Western and Central Europe. Goldet also served as a senior official of the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), whose assets were thoroughly plundered, including its library containing at least 20,000 volumes of Hebraica, countless art works that the AIU had agreed to safeguard in its building for concerned owners fleeing Paris in advance of the arrival of the Germans. But that’s another story…

29 October 2017

The top 10 plundered art articles

by Marc Masurovsky

The plundered art blog was born without anyone noticing it in May 2010.  As so many of these ventures go, nothing much was done in the first six months until December 23, 2010, when two brief pieces appeared which summarized the birth of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and events leading up to its establishment in September 1997.  On Christmas Eve 2010, perhaps on a lark, I wrote a review of “The Night of The Generals”, a campy film about anti-Hitler stirrings amongst the German general staff. My way of dipping my pinky toe in the murky waters of blogging.

2011 is when the juices began to flow and HARPs’ blog, plundered art, started to take shape.  For those of you who operate blogs on your own time, ad-free, with no staff other than yourselves, you know how much emotional and physical energy is required to keep such an adventure from becoming cybernetic driftwood and another digital artifact floating across the Internet ether.

Fast forward to October 29, 2017.

Time to take stock of the past six years, 307 articles later, all devoted in some fashion or form, directly, indirectly, to the broad topic of cultural plunder in the context of genocide, the challenges implicit in the identification and recovery of looted objects found in public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Many articles were written out of spite, despair, impatience, irritation, annoyance, and also out of a genuine desire to inform and to share some knowledge about events that transpired more than 75 years ago and continue to haunt us today, should you ever be paying attention to them.

Politics permeate the way that we view art, and in particular art with problematic histories. This is where provenance enters into the discussion; a word that I never paid attention to until the Schiele scandalof late 1997, early 1998, grabbed headlines in New York and Vienna, shaking the art world because New York city policemen dared enter the temple of art and money that is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), to remove from it two paintings executed by the bad boy of Vienna, Egon Schiele, that were suspected of having been plundered in the aftermath of the March 1938 Anschluss from two Jewish owners, victimized by the Nazis.

Politics inform the stories underlying countless numbers of works and objects of art, because history has a nasty way of interfering with their peregrinations through time and space, from the moment they exit the artist’s studio to the moment that they adorn the wall of a living room, dining room, bedroom or languish as ripening investments in freeport bunkers located in “neutral” territories like Switzerland, Singapore, and god knows where else, out of reach, out of mind, lost to the world.

Enough of this rhetoric.

It is my pleasure to present to you the top 10 articles which have graced the virtual pages of the “plundered art” blog. In honor of David Letterman, we will count them down in reverse order from 10 to 1.

[drum roll]

Deconstructing Aphrodite, published on January 28, 2012
ERR database-Georges Bernheim, published on April 2011
Franz Marc's "The large blue horses," published on January 5, 2012

Interestingly enough, the three top articles published by plundered art each pertain to a work of art, produced by Franz Marc, Jacopo Zucchi, and Paul Klee.

Let's hear it for.....

“The red horses”, by Franz Marc, published on January 3, 2012
Jacopo Zucchi, “the bath of Bathsheba”, published on August 2, 2011

And the all-time winner which has outpaced its rivals in no uncertain terms like a steed racing across the finish line at a race track of your choosing...

[extra drum rolls]

Angelus Novus, Angel of History, by Paul Klee, published on February 26, 2013

Last thoughts before calling it a day:

It gives me hope, in these times of grave uncertainties where the word “ethics” appears to have been gutted of any meaning, where it apparently is still ok to steal thy neighbor’s property because you are likely not to get caught—plunder, once again, is the only crime against humanity that pays for itself— that a savant blend of art, history, politics, war, justice, and ethics, still arouses interest and even passion amongst you out there, yes, you who are spread out across the seven seas and every continent, encompassing more than 60 countries—yes, that is the breadth of our readership, however impossible it is to verify whether you are mere digital echoes resulting from spam assaults or unsuccessful hacks (as in the Russian case), or men and women of all ages (yes, we do have readers who are in high school) who have expressed an interest in the fate of art objects misappropriated during acts of mass conflict and genocide, and which the art market and privately owned as well as government-run museums refuse to return to their rightful owners for a variety of inexplicable reasons. It is for you, the reader, that this blog exists.

18 October 2017

Different shades of recovery

by Marc Masurovsky

The process of recovery of looted cultural, artistic and religious objects is daunting for several reasons:

If action is not taken right away to recover a looted object, it becomes exponentially difficult to identify its current location. In the case of losses during the Third Reich, “recovery” was an absurd notion since the perpetrators of the thefts controlled the reins of political, legal, and economic power. Hence, the process of tracing the object could only occur after a regime change and with rules in place that would facilitate such searches. Moreover, if the works confiscated or plundered by the Nazi regime ended up in neighboring countries, what rights did the claimants have to recover such works, since Nazi Germany was a recognized nation in the community of nations, for better or for worse? What rights do they have now? Since most of the domestic losses suffered by Jews living in Germany were State-sponsored, there was no mechanism in place in other nations to deem the actions of the Nazi state illegal and the confiscated property subject to restitution. Therefore, if you lost your property in 1934 and if you survived all of the subsequent events provoked by the Nazis’ fury against the Jews and others, you would have to wait for at least 12 years to assert a claim of restitution.

If your missing object is located in the hands of a new owner, regardless of how that person or institution acquired the victims’ property, the laws governing property rights and title to “legally acquired” property prevent the plundered owner from obtaining restitution of his/her looted property without going through a complex tangle of legal and political maneuvers. In the absence of explicit mechanisms put in place by the national governments of nations where such looted objects have ended up, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover them. This state of affairs endures to this day and has been a continual source of frustration for victims of plunder with minimal accommodations made by governments and courts to facilitate the process of recovery.

If the looted object is declared part of the cultural patrimony of the nation from where it ended up, the recovery process involves a direct negotiation with that nation’s government, a very laborious discussion which usually ends in utter failure. What is the word of a dispossessed Jewish owner against that of an official who upholds the notion of cultural patrimony and inalienability of art objects located in State collections, whether those objects were looted during genocidal acts? Culpable countries hiding behind such imperialistic arguments are: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, to cite the worst, Eastern European nations, all of the nations that once formed the Soviet Union.

When source nations seek the return of their looted patrimony which usually consists of antiquities illegally extracted from archaeological sites or illegally removed from religious and other sacred edifices, the wait can last for an eternity; it can also be circumscribed to anywhere from a year to several decades if the aggrieved nation is willing to compromise, accept trade offs like offer commercial advantages to the withholding nation, or agree to symbolic returns with a promise never to come back and ask for anymore as in the case of South Korea and the shabby treatment it received from France over a set of priceless manuscripts.

Aggrieved source nations include but are not limited to Greece, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali.

In other words, we have not made much progress in the past several decades. As provenance continues to become optional in art market transactions and most nations do not encourage their cultural institutions to be more forthcoming in publicizing the history of the objects that are part of their “patrimony,” nothing short of a cultural revolution will sway them to change course and become, god forbid, ethical.