Germany sued over Nazi-era Medieval art sale

The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin
The 13th-century Dome Reliquary, part of the Welfenschatz or Guelph Treasure, is displayed at the Bode Museum in Berlin

“Any transaction in 1935, where the sellers on the one side were Jews and the buyer on the other side was the Nazi state itself is by definition a void transaction”.

So argues Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney representing descendants of the Jewish art dealers who sold a collection of medieval artworks known as the “Guelph” or “Welfenschatz” Treasure, allegedly under duress and threat of persecution. The complaint for the two heirs was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. to recover yesterday afternoon. The objects were part of the treasury of the Braunschweig cathedral and were used to store and display relics. The claimants allege that a group of Jewish art dealers were forced to sell the objects in 1935 to the German state of Prussia.

One unfortuante aspect here is that the German commission charged with resolving the claims of Nazi-era claimants was unable to achieve a satisfactory result for the claimants and the German government. One of the likely issues in this dispute will be one the timelinesss of this suit, whether a court will examine the circumstances surrounding an alleged forced sale nearly 80 years after it took place. The complaint alleges that the objects were sold under persecution for 4.15 million Reichsmarks (RM). If we do some rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, the exchange rate was 2.45 RM for $1. So that means the objects were sold for just shy of $1.7 million in 1935 dollars, which be nearly $28 million today. Considering the treasure may be worth as much as $226m, the German State seems to have received a pretty good bargain. The legal question will be whether that sale was under duress.

O’Donnell argues in his blog this morning:

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Roodt on the limits of art restitution

Repatriated Etruscan objects, part of the Nostoi exhibition
Repatriated Etruscan objects, part of the Nostoi exhibition

Dr. Christa Roodt has written a piece for the International Law Journal of Southern Africa titled “Restitution of art and cultural objects and its limits”. She is a Research Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Her piece is available from Trafficking Culture.

The abstract:

Art and cultural objects have a complex nature and status. A legal approach cannot escape having to state which objects come within the scope of the definition, but an objective legal definition in abstracto is difficult to provide. Because the flows of licit and illicit objects are so intermixed, both the legitimate and underground art markets are implicated in the trade involving these objects. Global legal diversity further complicates the distinction between the licit and the illicit trade. This article takes stock of restitution and suitable dispute settlement mechanisms against this backdrop. Restitution processes have become more openly policy-oriented, and the meaning of ‘restitution’ now extends to overcoming the legal obstacles in the way of return. Law can provide the framework for negotiation and dispute settlement in many cases, but the ethical dimension is a particularly powerful agent for restitution of Nazi spoliated art and human remains.

 

 

Roodt, C. (2013) ‘Restitution of art and cultural objects and its limits’, Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa XLVI, 286-307.

Massive trove of modern art discovered

The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011
The apartment block in Munich where 1500 were discovered in 2011

The recovery rate for stolen art may take a dramatic shift towards original owners. The German magazine Focus has broken the story of an incredible find. One of the most remarkable discoveries of stolen art that I can think of. A reported 1,500 works of art by artists including Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Klee, and others was stored in an apartment in Berlin for years. The works were likely spoliated by Nazis during the 1930s-40s.

When authorities executed a search warrant they found the works stacked in a dark room in a flat in this apartment block in Munich. They were hidden there by Cornelius Gurlitt, now 80, who was the son of a Munich art dealer.

The works were discovered after tax authorities executed a search warrant of Gurlitt’s apartment in 2011. He was stopped on a train bound for Switzerland with 9,000 euros in cash, and had plans to deposit the money in undeclared Swiss accounts. When the authorities searched his home they found what must be one of the largest ever single recoveries of stolen art.

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Restitution and Repatriation Symposium, DePaul, Nov. 14, 2013

I’ve been forwarded on details of a promising conference coming up at DePaul’s Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law in November. From the announcement:

The conference, Restitution and Repatriation: The Return of Cultural Objects Symposium will be held at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago on Thursday, November 14, 2013. The program will address the underlying legal, ethical and moral reasons and policies behind the return of cultural objects. Panels will discuss provenance research, museum acquisitions, historical appropriations, and the ethical issues that come into play when requests for repatriation are made.

Our Featured Lecturer will be Jack Trope, Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. Other speakers include: Lori Breslauer, Acting General Counsel of the Field Museum of Natural History; Steve Nash, Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Rebecca Tsosie, a Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University; Richard M. Leventhal, the Director of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center; Charles Brian Rose, a James B. Pritchard Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology in the Department of Classical Studies and Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section of the Penn Museum; Marc-André Renold, Director of the Art-Law Centre at the University of Geneva; Frank Lord, an associate at Herrick Feinstein LLP; Thomas R. Kline, Of Counsel in the Washington, D.C. office of Andrews Kurth LLP; and Simon Frankel, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, as well as several other leaders in the art, museum, and cultural heritage fields.

Be sure to check out the events page for this and other heritage events coming up, or to alert me about upcoming conferences.

2nd Circuit Rules for the Met in a Bolshevik-era restitution suit

“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”, Pierre Cezanne (1891)

Pierre Konowaloff has lost a bid to secure the return of some art confiscated nearly a century ago. Konowaloff is the successor in interest of a Russian art collector who had his art collection confiscated in the 1917 Russian revolution. The 2nd Circuit held the claim is barred by the act of state doctrine, upholding a 2011 dismissal of the claim in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. In its simplest form, the doctrine protects the U.S. Executives dealings with foreign nations by requiring claimants like Konowaloff to seek a remedy with the state doing the expropriation. The doctrine states that separation of powers requires that federal courts not challenge the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments.

In 1911, Ivan Morozov purchased the work. Morozov was a Russian art collector, and lost this work and another Van Gogh currently held by Yale University after the Bolshevik seizures during the Russian revolution. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of Morozov. The Soviet Union in 1933 needed funds and decided to deaccession (if I can use that term in this context) the painting. The paintings were purchased by Stephen Clark, an American who bequeathed the Cézanne to the MET and the Van Gogh to Yale University. Yale decided to initiate a declaratory suit, getting ahead of the lawsuit, and is still ongoing.

So the Bolshevik-era claim has been extinguished. One wonders though if the way courts treat the act of state doctrine in this context may be different from the ways it might treat foreign ownership declarations of other works of art. That’s a question I don’t have the answer to. It may be there are peculiar aspects of the doctrine. But on balance this seems like nations are given the benefit of the doctrine when it comes to situations where museums have long possessed these objects, but they aren’t given the same advantages in other repatriation cases. That may be because of problems baked-in to the doctrine, or not. I’m not aware of any direct act of state doctrine argument which bends for claimant-nations, it seems primarily to assist current museums attempting to fend off suits arising from Nazi-era takings.

  1. Philip Boroff, Met Museum Sued Over Cezanne Painting Stolen by Bolsheviks From Collector, Bloomberg, December 8, 2010.
  2. Konowaloff v. Metropolitan Musem of Art 11-4338-cv (2nd Cir. 2012)
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

A New Museum Position: Curator of Provenance

A Medallion looted during WWII

Geoff Edgers had a terrific piece over the weekend profiling Victoria Reed, curator of provenance at the MFA Boston. Her position was created in 2010, and is unique in the museum community. She is according to the piece the only curator of provenance at an American museum, a post which can put her in an uneasy position, recommending that the museum should not acquire objects with insufficient history.

Enter Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance. Her job, which is almost as rare in the museum world as is the medallion, is to research works with questionable histories both in the collection and on the MFA’s shopping list. As a result, Reed’s other job is to break curators’ hearts. Through months of research, Reed traced the medallion to a museum in Gotha, Germany, that she knew had been looted during the Nazi era. With that information, the MFA’s jewelry curator, Yvonne Markowitz, put the brakes on its purchase. And in September, the Art Loss Register announced that S.J. Phillips Ltd., the dealer who had offered the medallion, would be returning it to the Castle Friedenstein museum.

This can’t be an easy position to be in, but as more scrutiny attaches to museums, their collection, and their acquisitions, this kind of position will likely become more and more common. The market and dealers have not been adequately accomplishing this painstaking but necessary task, but perhaps they should be.

Paying for a position like this can be difficult given the funding climate for many museums. The piece notes that the position was funded by an MFA Boston donor, Monica S. Sadler, who stipulated that her position should not be cut from the museum’s budget. So other benefactors to museums out there, if you are concerned with the practice at your local museum, give a gift with similar stipulations. Easier said than done of course, but all parties involved should be praised for undertaking an important piece of reform which really could continue to substantially change the importance of provenance research. The piece deals primarily with works of art and paintings, but a position like this which examines antiquities could have even more far-reaching consequences for repatriation and acquisition.

  1. Geoff Edgers, A detective’s work at the MFA, The Boston Globe, December 11, 2011, http://bostonglobe.com/arts/2011/12/11/detective-work-mfa/6iaei4YOQOj83s9u3YfDXO/story.html?s_campaign=sm_fb (last visited Dec 13, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Repatriated Objects from the Getty in Naples

Over the weekend I traveled with a group from Amelia down to Sorrento and the Bay of Naples. On Saturday we went into Naples and visited what may be the most important Italian archaeological museum in Italy, the Naples National Archaeological Museum. It was every bit as stunning as advertised. A grand old beautiful shambling wreck of a museum in a beautiful mess of an Italian city, with the Farnese Bull, and the Alexander Mosaic, and much more. It was a lovely visit to one of Italy’s very best museums. It was founded in the 1750s by Charles III of Spain, and houses a number of important works from nearby Pompei and Herculaneum, which had been rediscovered and excavated in the early part of the 18th century.

But on the way out, a sign indicating what exhibition rooms were open or closed stood out. We hadn’t noticed it on the way in. I’ve posted the picture here, and even though it is too blurry to read, the red text at the bottom says ‘Restituzione dal museo J.P. Getty’, but the gallery was closed. One of our group asked (in Italian), why the gallery was closed, and was told apparently it was due to a lack of funding.

He asked, ‘what objects were in the gallery from the Getty’, and the museum employee responded that there was not enough funding for an inventory, probably meaning they did not have enough money to prepare a brochure. So which objects were meant to be displayed, the museum visitor can only guess at. Now I have no way of knowing if this is a typical case. Perhaps we caught the museum on a day where they were understaffed—though it was a Saturday. We paid our 8 euros each, though, and did our small part. There were a number of closed off areas, as you can perhaps make out in my amateur photograph, so there are other areas closed to the public.

Italy is currently enduring its own austerity measures, and like other nations which are cutting back, culture and heritage are some of the first targets. So perhaps in more prosperous times these objects will be displayed more regularly. But even with a good reason for the closing, even with a good reason for restitution, what good is a return if the objects can not be displayed? It will reduce the demand perhaps, but keep these objects hidden away, at least for our small group.

The museum was, for me, stunning. Whether the objects from the Getty (whatever they were) would have compared to the Farnese Bull, the Hercules at rest pictured here, or any of the stunning micro-mosaics can only be guessed at. But it is a striking irony that all of the work and time and effort spent repatriating objects from the Getty was wasted on this visitor, who took a plane, train, taxi, and bumpy ferry, walked the rainy streets of Naples to the Museum, and was still unable to see the objects ‘in context’ in Naples. This certainly does not justify for me the illicit and illegal trade in these objects. It does though I think crystallize just how vexing the antiquities trade, museums, and repatriation issues can be.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com