"Looking for Owners: Looted Masterpieces" go on show Exhibition brings together paintings stolen by the Nazis, and still unclaimedBy Rory McCarthy
in The Guardian, 22nd March 2008
Hanging on the wall of an upper floor in Jerusalem's Israel Museum are fine early C20th paintings. But what makes the art so compelling are the dark stories of their provenance and the long and often fruitless search for the original Jewish owners of thousands of works of art confiscated at the height of WW2.
Stamped on an Utrillo stretcher is a seal marked Feldpolizei Gruppe 540. The canvas was seized by the Nazi secret police in occupied France. After the war it was retraced in part thanks to the work of an unassuming but diligent member of the French resistance, Rose Valland, who worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, where the Germans stored the looted art before shipping it home. Valland secretly recorded what was coming in and going out. In early 1951 the Utrillo was unearthed in an attic in Tentschach castle, near Klagenfurt, in Austria. Its original owners were never traced.
c100,000 artworks were transferred from France to Germany during WW2, of which c60,000 have been recovered. Eventually some 45,000 were returned to their owners or their heirs, but the provenance of the rest has been untraceable and they are held in galleries across France.
The Utrillo is one of 53 such paintings in the Israel Museum's latest exhibition, Looking for Owners. Alongside it is a parallel exhibition, Orphaned Art, of looted works and Judaica which all lack clear ownership history and are now held at the museum.
I am assuming that the Looted Art Exhibition was an opportunity both to encourage owners to identify and claim the art AND to display the disparate paintings with a cohesive theme.
"It is a collision of art, art history and political history," said James Snyder, the museum's director. "It is the idea that Israel, the country that emerged from the ashes of the tragedy of war, should be the place where 65 years later a significant effort to bring to a close this chapter of war is taking place." Snyder said the paintings represented art collected by a secular middle class in Europe.
In some cases curators have traced which of Hitler's men held which paintings. There is the Matisse landscape, The Pink Wall, that was somehow obtained by Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer with specific responsibility for delivering Zyklon B to the camps who eventually took his own life in July 1945. The painting was discovered three years later and its original ownership is still being traced.
On another wall is a Gustave Courbet’s Bathers, which was bought by a prominent Parisian art dealer in Oct 1940 on behalf of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich's foreign minister. Provenance is untraced.
However, in other cases the art has been returned to its rightful owners. On show is a painting called Woman Drinker, by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch, an indoor scene bathed in light of a woman drinking with a pair of men. It was confiscated from Edouard de Rothschild, whose family's collections were systematically looted, and ended up in the hands of Hermann Göring. After the war it was recovered and returned to De Rothschild's daughter, Jacqueline, who donated it to the Louvre.
Shlomit Steinberg, curator of European art, said that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there had been a revival in efforts to trace art. Restitution was still vital even so many years after the war, he added.