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|Monet's Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul)at the Fogg. Was the painting plundered by the Nazis, as the Boston Globe suggested? Did Maurice Wertheim have clear title to it when he gave the picture to Harvard?Photograph by David Carmack|
A spate of finger-pointing by the press has raised questions about the provenance of four celebrated pictures hanging in the Fogg Art Museum and various antiquities--bronzes, vase fragments, coins--at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The suggestion that these objects may not legitimately belong in the Harvard University Art Museums has brought into focus a fundamental difference of opinion between members of the museum world and of the academy. The holdings and acquisitions policies of many of the world's museums are under scrutiny; Harvard's museums provide a case study in miniature of a far-reaching cultural phenomenon.
Last autumn the Boston Globe, in a front-page investigative report by Walter V. Robinson headlined "Murky histories cloud some local art," suggested that four paintings at the Fogg acquired during or soon after World War II "arrived with pedigrees that should have aroused curiosity, if not suspicion." Recently declassified government documents provide new evidence, the Globe asserted, that some unsuspecting collectors donated to major museums artworks "that may have been plundered from Jews and other European collections."
|Curators Sarah Kianovsky and Ivan Gaskell, with van Gogh's Three Pairs of Shoes. The painting was bought in 1925 by Marcel Kapferer and next appeared in Georges Wildenstein's gallery in New York in 1943, where Maurice Wertheim bought it. Kapferer and his family hid in Cannes during the war, and his granddaughter says that he sold paintings through Wildenstein-- to whom his family was related by marriage--at "spoliation prices" to support them. She doesn't know, the Globe reported, whether the van Gogh was sold in that manner. When did Kapferer sell his picture? Did he get a fair price for it? The Fogg searched for answers. Photograph by Jim Harrison|
Three of the paintings cited by the Globe are in the famous collection given to the Fogg by Maurice Wertheim '06, A.M. '07. They include Singer with a Glove, by Edgar Degas; Three Pairs of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh; and Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul), by Claude Monet. The fourth picture, Portrait of Jules Peyron by Paul Cézanne, was donated to the museum by the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr. '36 and his wife, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, A.M. '63. These, and other paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Globe judged to have "suspect characteristics: unexplained wartime ownership gaps, the involvement of dealers who collaborated with Nazi art looters, and, often, a failure by the collectors or museums to make inquiries before acquiring them."
Staff at the Fogg cooperated readily with the Globe investigation. "This inquiry is a good thing for us," said Ivan Gaskell, Winthrop curator. "Our questions about art works don't stop when works enter the collection. Objects are always in the light. We try to establish what they are in every way. Past ownership is but one of those ways."
Gaskell acknowledged in a January interview that gaps existed in the ownership records for these paintings. But, he said, "the inferences of the Boston Globe piece may be premature. It may be that something is fishy, but maybe not. I am not aware of any piece in the collection with a demonstrated illegitimate title." No individual has claimed ownership of any of the four pictures.
|Problematic pastel: Singer with a Glove, by Edgar Degas. Maurice Wertheim bought the picture in 1949 from a dealer accused of collaborating with plunderers. HARVARD UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUMS|
The Fogg is focusing its limited research resources on trying to discover more about the suspect paintings. Assistant curator Sarah Kianovsky is combing through declassified documents in the U.S. National Archives, just as the Globe's Robinson did, looking for clues. Gaskell has asked dealers to examine their old records.
The legitimacy of Wertheim's title to Degas' Singer with a Glove is "difficult to parse," says Kianovsky. "We haven't gotten very far on it." The pastel drawing was sold to Wertheim in 1949 for $38,500 by French dealer César Mange de Hauke. The Globe article portrayed de Hauke as a man who knowingly handled looted art, and Hubertus Czernin, writing in the Viennese newspaper Der Standard of February 28, described him as a collaborator of art plunderers. "In a long career, de Hauke appears to have done some things he shouldn't have," Kianovsky says, "but there is no evidence that he did in this instance." Before de Hauke had it, the Degas pastel had been owned by Camille Groult and then by a Dr. Heer of Zurich. Kianovsky is trying to learn more about them, information she thinks may be critical when judging whether de Hauke had a legal right to sell this picture to Wertheim.
The inquiry continues, but mysteries are being solved. Czernin, author of a series of pieces for Der Standard about possibly looted art, discovered documents in the public record that show conclusively, he writes, that Monet's Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul) was owned by one or more members of the Wittgenstein family from 1910 until 1954. Throughout the Nazi era, the painting, which then belonged to Paul Wittgenstein, remained in the family residence at Alleegasse 16 in Vienna. Wittgenstein was a concert pianist and art collector of Jewish ancestry, who fled to New York City in 1938 and eventually became an American citizen. His siblings, who remained in Austria during the war, evidently convinced the authorities that their grandfather was not, as had been thought, the son of a Jewish actor, but rather the illegitimate son of a German prince. The Wittgensteins survived the war, their property unseized. The family consigned the Monet for sale at auction in Stuttgart in 1954. Art dealer Jacques Seligmann bought it. Seligmann was an associate of the dubious de Hauke. Thus, wrote Czernin, the Boston Globe assumed that Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul) had been confiscated by the Nazis.
The painting was acquired by the Wertheim Fund in 1955. "It now has a good provenance," says Kianovsky.
|Warriors adorn this Greek vase fragment of about 520-510 b.c., acquired by the Sackler to the dismay of some scholars. HARVARD UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUMS|
The cloud over two other of the four pictures also appears to have been dispelled, says Kianovsky. Although the Fogg's old records showed that the van Gogh was consigned for sale at the Wildenstein Gallery in 1943, the firm now tells the Fogg that, in fact, they had the painting in their possession in New York before the war.
Research by Kianovsky indicates that Cézanne's Portrait of Jules Peyron was bought by Berlin dealer Alfred Gold in 1937 and apparently held by him until he sold it to Georges Wildenstein in 1948. (Perhaps to suggest the nature of some of the players in the art world at the time-- although the information seems irrelevant to the status of the Cézanne--the Globe emphasized that before Gold owned it, the painting had belonged to Hans Wendland, later "the principal wartime art dealer for Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering." Moreover, Wildenstein "had a business relationship with Karl Haberstock, Adolf Hitler's principal art looter.")
In response to innuendo, guilt by association, accusations, and judicial investigations into the possibility that American museums are bulging with art confiscated by the Nazis from European Jews, provenance research has become something of a light industry. "There are any number of new commercial ventures making themselves available for assistance to people with claims they wish to make or to museums that wish to have provenance research done," says James Cuno, Ph.D. '85, professor of fine arts and Cabot director of the University Art Museums. Partly, he says, to put a damper on commercial exploitation of concerns about possibly looted art, the Association of American Museum Directors established in February a task force charged with devising ways for museums to weigh claims of title to specific works promptly and thoroughly. Cuno is a member of the task force. It hopes to find alternatives to long and costly legal proceedings, perhaps nonbinding arbitration, according to another of its members. Says Cuno, "The reason the task force has been brought together is to make clear that we are on the right side, that we share a sense of the horror of the Holocaust, and that we intend to contribute our resources to clarifying matters when questions are raised about our collections."
|Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus, circa 200 b.c., an Etruscan ceramic sculpture acquired by the Sackler as a gift from Robert E. Hecht. HARVARD UNIVERSITY ART MUSEUMS|
"When somebody says, 'We think we have a claim,' Cuno is very responsive," Walter Robinson tells this magazine. "The Globe has conducted many inquiries into the provenance of holdings in various museums. Cuno and his staff have been extraordinarily open and accessible in providing records. They even alerted us to the existence of a correspondence file in which Wertheim expressed his own suspicions that the dealer who sold him the Degas didn't have the right to do so. I can't imagine any other museum offering that sort of information."
The Fogg's Eugénie Graff (Madame Paul) now has a "pristine provenance," Robinson tells this magazine, adding that "I don't think the same can be said for some of the antiquities at the Sackler."
Some Sackler acquisitions of classical antiquities in recent years, Robinson wrote in the Globe, "including 182 Greek vase fragments bought in 1995 and recently showcased in a second-floor gallery, have shocked scholars because of the likelihood the...pieces were looted from tombs in Italy. In addition, Harvard's museums have been acquiring undocumented objects from an international dealer [Robert E. Hecht] so notorious for dealing in looted artifacts that he was barred from Italy for almost a decade."
The vase fragments were exhibited at the Sackler Museum last year in Fragments of Antiquity: Drawing upon Greek Vases.
David G. Mitten, Ph.D. '62, Loeb professor of classical art and archaeology and Hanfmann curator of ancient art, recommended to Cuno that he buy the vase fragments from a New York dealer who had obtained them over time from J. Robert Guy, an archaeologist at Oxford University who is an expert on Greek vase fragments. Guy also has had business relationships authenticating vases for dealers who, reportedly, have been implicated in buying plundered antiquities. Guy provided no documentation proving that the vase fragments Harvard bought had been excavated legally. But Cuno bought them anyway.
"We talked much among ourselves in the museum," says Cuno. "We talked with Irene Winter (see the sidebar). We talked with colleagues elsewhere and with Mr. Guy himself. While there weren't answers to every question as to where an object was acquired and so forth, there was no reason to believe that these things had been illegally exported or looted. One had to make the decision on the basis that one had no evidence of wrongdoing, and one had to assess the level of trust one had in the people with whom one was dealing. Guy has ongoing working relations with academic colleagues in Italy itself, the likely source of the objects, and I didn't think he would put those relationships in jeopardy needlessly. He knew that we would publish the vase fragments and make known that he had collected them. I believed he had to feel confident that they were not being offered illegally."
Mitten also recommended purchase of certain undocumented antiquities from dealer Robert E. Hecht, among them bronzes and 70 ancient Greek coins, and the museum accepted a donation from Hecht of an Etruscan sculpture of Romulus and Remus.
The Globe leapt on these acquisitions, quoting archaeologist Claire Lyons, vice president for professional responsibility of the Archaeological Institute of America. It is "heartbreaking," she was quoted as saying, that "such a prestigious academic museum, whose curators and director are also faculty members, is not up to speed on current ethical norms." "The prevailing standard," she told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "is that material is guilty of questionable pedigree until proven innocent."
"The debate," says Cuno, "is between people whose primary concern is for the archaeological circumstances of a site and of things found on that site, and people such as myself and others who work in art museums whose primary concern is for the preservation, interpretation, presentation, and perpetuation of the object. It's in the nature of the two professions to differ on this matter. While museum people also wish to preserve archaeological sites, we also have a responsibility for the work of art that is now removed from the ground and out of its country of origin." (Cuno points out that the University Art Museums has administrative responsibility for the excavations at Sardis in Turkey [see "The Search for Sardis," March-April, page 50]. Mitten is an associate director of the Sardis excavation.)
"This is where I differ--and I think I represent prevailing attitudes in the museum profession--from my colleagues who say to me that, when confronted with the opportunity to acquire a work of art that is not fully documented, one should not acquire it for two reasons. One, not acquiring it discourages looting and contributes to the decline of looting. Two, the work of art, if it has not been professionally excavated and had its archaeological circumstances documented, has no meaning.
"As to the relationship between acquiring and looting," says Cuno, "the two acts are often so distant from each other in time and place, if at all related, that it's hard to see how a single act can make a significant difference in all of that. As to the second charge, my position is that the museum profession has an ethical obligation to conserve the work of art, to perpetuate the opportunity for the study and appreciation of it. Art objects have layers of meaning, and only one is the archaeological layer."
Cuno argues, as well, that if museums do not buy an undocumented object, it will disappear into a private collection. Far better for a museum to own it and publish it so that anyone with a legitimate claim to the object knows where to send the claim.
"We were given, six years ago, three Roman tablets, bronze, with lettering," says Cuno. "The donor said he had had them since the 1960s. In the process of doing research to catalog the tablets, we came across an article that suggested to us that they were part of a hoard of such things that was looted and illegally exported from Palermo in Sicily. So we sent photographs to the superintendant of antiquities in Palermo and said, This is what we've got, this is what we know about the tablets, what do you think about it? We heard nothing for about a year. Then we received word from the general counsel's office at the University that the FBI was coming with members of the Palermotan police and the head of antiquities because they had evidence that the tablets were looted. We met with them, they presented the evidence, it was irrefutable, and so back the bronzes went, instantly. These people walked away with them. They got back their looted objects because we had them and communicated with them. That's why I think we are doing the right thing."
Cuno believes that the key issue in this debate is process. "We have learned that in principle the process we follow is correct," he says. "Others will disagree with that. We seek reasonable assurance that an object has not been looted or illegally exported from its country of origin. The question is, what does 'reasonable assurance' mean? Did we acquire reasonable assurance in the cases in question?
"Anytime that something like this comes up," says Cuno, "one thinks twice about what one has done. I feel very good about the vase fragments. The coins have been on loan to another museum since the late 1960s [anything may be acquired that left its country of origin before Harvard established a formal policy on acquisitions in 1971; see sidebar"], and so I think they're okay. I don't feel that we did due diligence with regard to other objects from Hecht. We could have been more serious about it. I have no reason to think that there is anything illegal about the transactions, or that we shouldn't have acquired the objects. But I made that decision prematurely. I didn't know the past of the dealer from whom the objects came. I could have asked more questions of more people. I wasn't as diligent as I should have been. I think we learned, and henceforth we will reinvigorate the process."
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