13 April 2011

ERR database—Untangling the Hugo Simon collection

It may come as no surprise if I say that the job of documenting Nazi-sponsored art thefts can be a tedious undertaking.  The Hugo Simon collection is a case in point.

Hugo Simon was a German-born man of Jewish descent who fled Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933.  He settled down in Paris on the rue de Grenelle in the 7th arrondissement.  Seven years later, the sound of jackboots came back to haunt him as German armed forces converged on his adopted home.  This time, he fled to Brazil leaving all of his belongings behind--works of art, rugs, stock certificates, personal papers--everything that he could not carry with him.

In 1947, Hugo Simon submitted a claim for his lost property to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  It contained lists of items that he remembers having left behind in Paris and which he rightly presumed to have been stolen by the Germans.

During the Nazi occupation of France, the ERR staff at the Jeu de Paume compiled its own lists of items removed from Hugo Simon's home.  They produced an inventory containing 25 items and typed up 11 cards.  The Jeu de Paume database documented initially the 11 cards.  Therefore, the first task at hand was to add into the database the items that had not been carded by the ERR but which had been listed on their inventory.  Once that was accomplished, these 25 items could be compared with the items listed by Hugo Simon on the inventories that he had submitted to the French government and also against the lists produced by the French government of items belonging to Hugo Simon which had been recovered and restituted to him.  Simple? Think again...

It turns out that the list of lost items submitted by Hugo Simon contained items which the ERR had neither carded nor inventoried.  To make matters more complicated, the ERR had carded and inventoried items which Hugo Simon had not listed on his inventory.  Not to say that those items did not belong to him.  He simply forgot to list them.  If you're lost or confused, I don't blame you.  So was I.  After twelve hours of forensic work, some semblance of historical truth emerged from the conflation of lists produced by Hugo Simon, the ERR, and the French government.

First, the events as they might have transpired:

Late 1940-Early 1941:  A unit of the Dienststelle Westen, the local operational arm of the ERR in German-occupied Paris pays a visit to Hugo Simon's apartment.  The early date--the Germans have only been in Paris for less than 5 months--indicates a special interest in Mr. Simon perhaps due to his being a former German citizen, Jewish, and with some proclivities for anti-Nazi sentiment.  His collecting habits confirm his progressive leanings as the ERR soon discovers, since Hugo Simon collects mostly 'degenerate' art--works created by German expressionists like Erich Heckel, Ludwig Meidner, Max Pechstein, Max Hunziker, and others.

The ERR inventory of Hugo Simon's collection leaves blank the date of seizure, which reaffirms suspicions that it occurred early on in the occupation of Paris.

16 October 1941: An important shipment of looted art leaves Paris and heads for Fussen, one of the most important storage and organizing depots established by the ERR in Bavaria to recycle cultural plunder from Western Europe.  A crate marked 'Collections Diverses' (Miscellaneous) is on that train carrying a painting attributed to Canaletto and labeled H.S. 1.

15 May 1942: The ERR records the official entry of Hugo Simon items into the sorting and selection center of the Jeu de Paume, or 15 months after the original theft took place.  What happened in between?  Also, the ERR inventory does not include all of the items declared by Hugo Simon as his property, especially rugs, statuettes, fine silk, a number of Impressionist works by Pissarro, Corot, and Daumier and an interesting 15th century 'cassone'.   The ERR inventory, however, takes note of the 'degenerate' works in Hugo Simon's collection and proceeds to label them as 'vernichtet' or 'slated for destruction.'  As if this was not complicated enough, the ERR had assigned to Hugo Simon's collection the label of 'SI'.  Then it changed its mind and labeled it 'Si-unb.' perhaps because someone lost track of the items and could no longer figure out how they had fallen into ERR hands.  When the 1942 inventory is produced, the new moniker for Hugo Simon is a sober 'H.S.' 

1946-1947: A number of items are recovered by Allied troops in Germany and Austria and shipped back to France for restitution to Hugo Simon's representative.  Amongst them is a crate--H.S. 2--containing silver items that were part of a crate inventory drawn up by the ERR in preparation for its shipment to the Reich.

In conclusion, it can be stated that, as of today, works by the following artists including the 15th century Cassone, Chinese decorative items and a piece of furniture, have never been recovered and should still be considered as stolen property:

Honore Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Ruysdael, Kees van Dongen, Max Orlik, Max Hunziker, Marie Laurencin, Franz Masereel, Ernst Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Ludwig Meidner, Springer, Christian Rohlfs, Aristide Maillol, Heinrich Haller, and Demeter.